The Central Tower of Paine, A Singular Education

Publication Year: 1999.

The Central Tower of Paine

A singular education

by Steve Schneider

My first view of Patagonia was from 30,000 feet. My partner, Jim Surette, and I jostled for window space in the jetliner. Below us, Cerro Torre and her satellite summits stood in full magnificence, stunning fingers of granite, sheer for thousands of feet on all sides, rising up out of the pampas like some huge beckoning hand. We could just imagine a pair of climbers down below us, gunning it for the summit, having the climb of a lifetime. Of course I had read about these mountains and the heroic feats of legendary climbers such as Maestri, Bridwell, Donini—but it was one thing to read about these peaks, and an altogether different experience to see them in their natural splendor and feel their raw power. With a last fleeting glimpse of the 5,000-foot south face of Cerro Torre, my world of Yosemite’s walls was shattered. My education in the big mountains was about to begin.

Jimmy and I never came close to sending Cerro Torre, although it was unbelievably exciting just to set foot on that slender spire. On our first attempt we got blown out at the base of the hard climbing. Our bodies were actually lifted off the belays by enormous updrafts as we tried to communicate life-and-death decisions by yelling into each other’s ears. By the time we got down, I had reinjured a nagging wrist problem that relegated me to “trekker” status. It was probably not the worst luck, since I was now free to explore the park while the other climbers were shut down over the next two months from climbing anything worthwhile by unusually bad weather, even for Patagonia.

Near the end of that 1996- ’97 season, I found myself climbing again, this time in the Paine region, 100 miles south of Cerro Torre. I hooked up with Ted Bonetti, a friend of a friend’s friend, to make the second ascent of a route called Caveman, a fantastic-looking line up a striking 1,500-foot buttress in the seldom-visited French Valley. On top, a stiff wind and darkness arrived simultaneously, and we readied an emergency bivouac. Suddenly, I was spooning a guy I barely knew. As if that weren’t exciting enough, the ensuing descent, complete with wicked Patagonian winds that made me feel like I was a kite, had me begging for more. I vowed to return.

The next year, my luck was better: I was present for an unheard-of 20-day clear spell. The highlight of the trip was climbing the west face of the Central Tower of Paine via the unrepeated Italian route, with Andreas Zegers, another guy I barely knew. As it turned out, this Santiago-based climber is Chile’s most accomplished big wall climber, with 20 different routes on El Capitan under his belt. We cranked the route in under 23 hours, having a great time climbing through the night on wild offwidth cracks. This was the adventure I was craving, and the chance to use my Yosemite expertise to good measure.

But something was still missing. It was the unknown excitement of making a first ascent, the boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before type of stuff. Which is why I found myself in Chilean Patagonia for a third straight year.

Arriving in Punta Arenas on January 24, 1999, I begin to prepare for a major first ascent up the center of the east face of the Central Tower of Paine. This 1200-meter face already had seven routes on it, but there appeared to be a couple of natural lines left. My partner for the climb was Christian Santilices, who had come to Paine five years previously with fellow Americans Brad Jarret and Chris Breemer and, by opening up the grand 1200- meter East Face of Escudo, basically climbed the hardest route in the Paine. The trio had climbed alpine style for 20 days, with Brad Jarret leading half of the climb—the hard half, up to A4+. I continually looked up to Christian for his experience and perseverance on this monumental climb.

For my own part, besides my two years’ experience in Patagonia, I had climbed El Capitan 55 times, including two first ascents, three solos, and eight speed records. But this venture was by far the biggest climb I had ever attempted. We chose to emulate the Escudo climb by climbing alpine style (which had never been done on this wall), pulling our ropes up behind us as we made a series of camps up the face. As a party of two, we were also the smallest party to attempt the wall.

For the next four weeks, with the help of some porters, we established our first camp 400 meters up the wall, the last 150 meters of which shared ground with the 1992 British El Regalo de Mwoma route. The British route traversed right from our camp to ascend a “kilometer-high knifeblade crack.” Although the initial 400 meters of our line had been mostly slabby free climbing, the climbing that now loomed above was vertical for the next 600 meters. Our line paralleled the British route 100 feet to the right, but it appeared much fainter, with two distinct blank sections between thin-looking cracks. This perhaps explained why it had been left unclimbed.

On February 25, in dubious weather, we committed to the face, moving into Camp I and pulling our fixed ropes as we ascended. We had 16 days of food, 30 liters of water, and, we hoped, enough fuel to cook and melt snow for water.

In the first seven days on the wall, during which the weather was typical Patagonia with snow and high winds every day, we only fixed three-and-a-half pitches. Over the course of the week, I noticed an increasing agitation in Christian, who began expressing a huge feeling of homesickness. Twice he relinquished leads to me that he felt were too hard for himself, and I could tell it bothered him to not be putting in an equal contribution. Still, I greedily snatched them up. The climbing was continually challenging and totally natural: each pitch consisted predominantly of peckers, beaks, knifeblades, and lost arrows—and no rivets. For 1,000 feet, the crack rarely exceeded an eighth of an inch in width, and blank sections were linked via challenging tension traverses. My spirit soared with the beauty of the climb and the experience of living on this remote wall.

On our seventh day on the wall, while waiting out a snowstorm, things came to a head as Christian announced his decision to return to the ground. There was no discussing his decision; the finality in his voice represented a man who had made up his mind. To his credit, it seemed he had willed himself to continue the last couple of days more to honor his commitment to climbing the wall with me than for any desire to make the climb. While perturbed by the turn of events, I had to respect Christian’s decision to descend. What remained was the question of what I would now do.

We talked out different options. I still wished to continue. We probably had enough rope to descend to the ground and yet remain fixed to our highpoint. We could descend together, and maybe I could recruit another partner in town to come back up the wall. I could just quit, possibly to return the next year. Or I could just suck up the slack and solo the wall, an outlandish proposition considering nobody had ever soloed a wall this big in Paine, let alone a first ascent. If I chose to go on, it would be the biggest decision in my life (or death). With no other climbers in the valley, a rescue seemed a slim possibility, and a solo ascent seemed just plain dangerous.

I probably should have bailed with Christian. It certainly would have saved some grief with my family back home. But something in my heart stirred. The thought of turning back made me sick. I realized that I wanted the summit, and I wanted it like nothing I had ever wanted before.

That night, I announced my decision to Christian to continue on alone. He acted surprised about my choice to continue, seemed guilty to be leaving me in a precarious situation, and was visibly stressed about my safety. But Christian’s suggestion to come with him next year, when he was more psyched, fell on deaf ears. If I respected his decision to descend, he was equally bound to respect my decision to keep going.

On the morning of the eighth day, Christian and I embraced and went our separate ways. We kept in radio contact for a few hours, and then I was alone.

I began a steady routine of waking up at 7 a.m., having coffee and oatmeal, and then climbing until 8 or 9 at night. Occasionally I would be forced to take a rest day as the incredible effort took a serious toll on my body. I was plagued by leg cramps, general fatigue, and a flare-up of carpal tunnel syndrome that caused stinging pain and numbness in my hands.

On day 11, I set up Camp II 700 meters above the glacier. While Camp I, situated above a large ramp, had been protected from the full brunt of the wind, Camp II was set up on a hanging stance without a hint of a comer to shelter my portaledge. My whole justification for continuing on the wall was the premise that I always had a secure camp to retreat to and make myself relatively comfortable in during the worst conditions. Even with my portaledge now tied down on the outside comers in two different directions, though, I realized that I was hanging my ass way, way out there.

Above Camp II, the crack opened up, allowing for more cam placements and faster progress. The weather had improved to where it was only snowing one or two hours a day. However, it began to get increasingly windy at night. During my 14th night on the wall, the wind absolutely rocked my little hovel. The fly vibrated madly at a huge crescendo all night long. The inside comers of my ledge, which had no tie downs, bounced me up and down continuously. I held on through the night as successive updrafts tried to unleash my ledge from its anchors. Outside, a full Patagonian tempest was in progress, and my premise of feeling safe as long as I had my nice little secure portaledge lost all of its validity as the word “survival” surfaced to mind.

Around 6 a.m., the wind died down. My precious camp remained intact. I rested for four hours, too utterly wrecked to contemplate climbing.

But one detail gnawed at my attempts at sleep. A strategy flaw as serious as the weather now put my ascent in jeopardy. I was quickly running out of fuel. Down to my last canister, my days on the wall were numbered. I had no idea when this last canister would run out, leaving me with no water and short-circuiting my climb.

I had six ropes with which to fix pitches above Camp II. Four were already fixed, and I would have liked to fix two more before making a summit push. But with my fuel supply at a critical level, I made a decision to strike for the summit then and there, even though I was still weary from the previous night’s epic.

I left Camp II just after noon, summit bound. I climbed one more pitch in daylight, and then continued through the night up such memorable rope lengths as “Starry, Starry, Night,” named for obvious reasons, and “The British Are Coming,” where the British route traversed mine. Most of the climbing was A1 and A2, although ice-filled cracks slowed my progress.

It was 6 a.m. when I arrived at the first of two snowfields that signified a lower-angle section 500 feet below the summit ridge. Not wanting to crampon up in the darkness, I waited for dawn. At 7:30 a.m., the sun came up, bright and warm. A weather check revealed a beautiful day. All systems were go. I marveled at my luck and prepared for the final assault.

In the middle of the next lead, in between placing two ice screws, I glanced up to notice a condor cruising the air currents above. It was my first sighting of one of these majestic birds since I had started the climb. In contrast to my clunky, labored progress, the bird soared in silent, effortless flight. It began a slow circle, and I saw its wings dip, as if in acknowledgment of my presence and our shared solitude. I bent down to the task at hand, and my next glance upward revealed a birdless sky, and a renewed enthusiasm for my escapade.

The next few pitches went quickly as I punched though the second snowfield, stemmed up a verglass-covered chimney, and hit the complex summit ridge of the Central Tower of Paine. I faced a false summit gendarme with the summit just beyond. It took five minutes of gazing to spy a tricky mantle that gained access to an easy traverse of the gendarme. Untying from the rope, I soloed the last few moves to the true summit.

Complex emotions of triumph, pride, joy, amazement, confidence, and completeness each took turns engulfing me in their exquisite flavors. An after-taste of anxiety permeated the experience as the realization of how totally extended I was hit home. I lingered for perhaps 15 minutes, snapping a few photos and admiring the views, then began the descent to my high camp, almost 600 meters below. Although dehydrated and haggard, the descent went well, and I crawled into my portaledge at about 8 p.m., 32 hours after leaving.

It took me two more days to complete the descent. I ran out of fuel at the last minute, and developed a minor case of frostbite on my big toes due to my shoes being too tight, which I have to say was a rookie mistake. I’ll probably lose my toenails, but nothing else. I was on the wall for 18 days, 11 of which were solo.

I named the route Golazo, after the popular South American cheer of good sportsmanship (it is, as well, my favorite chocolate bar in Chile). I returned to America on March 24, exactly two months after going to South America. I just might take a break from climbing down there next year—although Cerro Torre still looms on the horizon.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Paine National Park, Chile

New Route: Golazo (VI 5.10 A4+, 1200m) on the east face of the Central Tower of Paine, February 22-March 11, 1999, Steve Schneider, solo (Christian Santelices to pitch 12)