American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Patagonia, Looking Back, Toward the Future

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001


Looking back, toward the future

Rolando Garibotti, Club Andino Bariloche, Argentina

“El futuro llego hace rato” (The future arrived long ago)

—Los Redonditos de Ricota

It is not uncommon for every generation to feel that its importance in the context of time is greater than that of generations past. But with the passing of time, parameters change and the perceived reality changes with them. More often than not, today’s society, overly concerned as it is by the acquisition of material goods and quantifiable achievements, ignores that which cannot be measured. So it happens that many of the subtleties and riches of the past are forgotten, overshadowed by “numerical” progress. From my perspective, this is the case with alpinism, and the climbing history of the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massifs is a good example of it.

In 1965, two young Argentinean climbers, Carlos Comesaña and Jose Luis Fonrouge, walked to the base of one of Fitz Roy’s longest faces and, over the course of two and a half days, completed the second ascent of the mountain via a new route that they dubbed the Supercanaleta. It was in the purest form of alpine style that they carried out the ascent of a mountain of which they wrote: “This ideal of all mountains casts a spell on the climber and is worthy of his greatest efforts” (AAJ 1966, p. 75). Thirty-six years later, their “greatest effort” is still the only alpine-style first ascent to be done on this peak.

It is hard not to wonder why such a strong statement fell on deaf ears. What has alpinism evolved into? Undoubtedly, great advances have been made from a technical standpoint, but these seem to have gone hand-in-hand with a growing desire to succeed, which has translated into the use of countless means to bring projects to fruition. Meters of fixed ropes, power drills, and the like appear to have overshadowed the beauty and sense of fairness that implies accepting and following the conductive thread of nature.

The ascent of Supercanaleta was not the only time that Fonrouge helped pave the way with visionary fantasy. Only a few years later, in 1968, he once again set the bar very high for those who would follow. His ascent of the impressive Southwest Face of Poincenot epitomizes minimalism. With only one sleeping bag, no stove, and little in the way of food, Fonrouge and Alfredo Rosasco proceeded over the course of four days to complete a route that has been repeated only once. Italian Ermanno Salvaterra had that honor, and, after his ascent, wrote, “I was very impressed by the route. Fonrouge was a real precursor. The way in which he approached first ascents is unfortunately not very popular today. We have to acknowledge that in comparison we haven’t really improved” (Alp 111, p. 18).

Ten years before, in 1958, Italians Walter Bonatti and Carlo Mauri had already led by example. After a failed attempt on the West Face of Cerro Torre, they went on to complete, in just one day, a daunting traverse across the Adela Massif, climbing six peaks along the way, three of which were previously unclimbed. The only equipment at their disposal was a short rope, one ice-axe each and crampons “like those old school mountaineers would have had,” wrote Bonatti. He continued, “It is not only with artificial means that man can overcome the greatest difficulties of these ice ridges but also with something else, greater and within himself, which is worth far more” (On the Heights, p. 166).

Few have been the climbers who have tried to emulate these examples of fair play, and the climbing community still seems far from understanding its importance. It is not uncommon for today’s alpinists, in their search for higher technical grades and unclimbed lines, to use enormous quantities of gear in their long, drawn-out ascents. And yet, as Reinhold Messner noted, “There is no rush, for a mountain can’t run away—and nor can it defend itself” (“Murder of the Impossible,” Mountain 15/1971). In Patagonia, when it comes to the bigger objectives such as Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, Fitz Roy, or Cerro Piergiorgio’s west and northwest faces, fixed ropes have been used to complete all but a notable few first ascents. The exceptions include Brewer and Bridwell’s first complete ascent (with the help of Maestri’s countless bolts) of Cerro Torre’s Southeast Ridge in 1979; Cavallaro, Salvaterra and Vidi’s link-up of Standhardt and Punta Herron via the Spigolo dei Bimbi in 1991; and the completion of two partially pre-established routes on Cerro Fitz Roy: Chimichurri y Tortas Fritas, by Lindblade and Whimp in 1993, and Tehuelche, by Byerly and Garibotti in 1996.

Also noteworthy are Abert, Afanasieffs and Fabre’s almost-alpine-style first ascent of the lengthy Northwest Ridge of Fitz Roy in 1979; a brave capsule-style attempt by Giarolli, Orlandi and Ravizza on the northwest face of the Torre in 1994; Giovanazzi and Salvaterra’s capsule-style climb of the unfinished La Gioconda in 1998; and Ponholzer’s all-out attempts on the north face of the Torre during the late 1990s.

On towers of smaller magnitude, alpine style has become a bit more popular, but it is still far from becoming the norm. The list of alpine-style first ascents, excluding more insignificant formations such as El Mocho, De L’ S, and Guillaumet, encompasses just over a dozen routes. Among these are Carrington and Rouse’s West Face of Aguja Poincenot in 1977; Giarolli, Orlandi and Salvaterra’s Otra Vez on Standhardt’s west face in 1989; Bresba and Luthi’s North Face of Aguja Bifida in 1989; Chaverri and Plaza’s valiant near-miss on the east face of Cerro Standhardt in 1993; Crouch and Donini’s Old Smuggler’s Route on Poincenot in 1996; and Martin and O’Neill’s North Ridge of Standhardt in 2000.

In the repeat of more classic moderate routes, we see a more consistent use of alpine-style tactics. Routes such as the Franco-Argentinean and Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy, the Southeast Ridge and West Face of Cerro Torre, Aguja Poincenot’s Whillans Route and Aguja Guillaumet are mostly climbed in good style. However, it is common for parties to reach the end of the technical rock-climbing difficulties and call it quits, thus missing the upper portions of the routes and, in many cases, the unique ice-mushrooms. By avoiding these sections, which are often very challenging, one misses not only the wonderful summit view, but more importantly the significance that summits have as a natural and definitive conclusion to an ascent.

It has not only been fixed ropes that have been used to subdue new routes. In the mid-1990s, Cesare Maestri’s old trick—the infamous compressor—returned to the scene, this time in the form of lighter, more efficient power drills. Routes such as Royal Flush on Fitz Roy’s east face, Pilar Rojo on Mermoz’s east face and Condorito on Saint Exupery’s south face were all established not only with large quantity of fixed rope but also with the extensive use of power drills. Over 100 bolts each were placed on two of these routes, more often than not in places where natural protection is available. In the words of Kurt Albert, responsible for the first ascent of these three routes, the goal was “to set up decent routes with comfortable belays and protection that makes climbing in good conditions enjoyable.” He continued on to justify himself by saying, “Many of the best lines in the world don’t get repeated because of bad or no protection” (AAJ 1996, p. 236).

With comfort and enjoyment as goals, one has to wonder where the line will be drawn. Why would someone come to Patagonia looking for “comfort” when the weather, the conditions, and the severity of the area clearly suggest a different experience? The roads of progress have already bulldozed through much terrain, leaving us little wilderness, while providing us with the carefully planned, aseptic and uniform amenities of the modern world. Michel Piola, responsible for many fine first ascents in Patagonia, asked, “Do we want to turn the world into a giant Lunapark, in which the Human Being is a pawn without personality or initiative?” (Vertical 32, p. 37).

In alpinism, the virginity of the terrain is an important ingredient, since even simple, trackless, human passage leaves an everlasting trace, marring the enigma, magic, and complexity presented by untouched nature. Mountains are a very limited resource, and therefore I believe it is our responsibility to make a measured and conscientious use of them as adventure terrain in order to insure their preservation as such. From my point of view, we do not have the right to utilize all the means and equipment, such as fixed ropes, haulbags by the dozen, and power drills, at our disposal, since by doing so we not only kill the impossible but steal the playground of the future generations. This premise was brought forth by Messner in 1971 when he criticized the ascents of “direttissimas” that resorted to the use of countless bolts to follow the plumb line. Today this critique applies to big-wall-style ascents, as well as to the shameless use of fixed ropes.

As mountains cannot defend themselves, I believe we ought to embrace a kind of minimalistic alpinism that puts the value of style above that of the objective. If in fact what we search for is a rich human experience, something greater within ourselves, as described by Bonatti, we will be more likely to find it in simplicity than by resorting to the use of technology and equipment to our advantage. However, if ambition or profession create the desire to conquer a certain mountain or wall at any cost, using all means and materials available, at that point I believe there is no more sense in looking toward the mountains.

The subtleties and compromises are many, and one could argue that the use of cams or even climbing shoes infringes on the ability to relate to nature on its own terms. However, without going to extremes, it appears evident that the age-old way to climb involves a climbing party carrying their own equipment on their backs, independent of any outside help, starting to climb at the base of a mountain or wall and finishing at the obvious natural conclusion, which more often than not is the summit. Isn’t this idea of accepting and following the conductive thread of nature the message that Bonatti, Fonrouge, Comesaña, and the like are trying to tell us?

Adventure is at everyone’s doorstep; its richness depends solely on our outlook. The mountains are a space of freedom, creativity, and expression, a vehicle through which we can reach a broader, more infinite terrain: that which lies within. However, we must not forget that the continuing power and appeal of any path depends strictly on the way we tread on it today.

Author’s note: Special thanks go to Carlos Comesaña, who is responsible for sparking many of the thoughts in this article. He is also responsible for providing much of the support, content, and ideas needed to help push forward a legislative motion that declared a previously unprotected area, including the north flank of Fitz Roy and the surrounding peaks, as a Natural Monument, when in early 2000 the area was in danger of becoming a private concession.

Rolando Garibotti has visited the Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre massif over a dozen times, the first at age 15 when he climbed Aguja Guillaumet. His finest ascents in that area include the first complete ascent of Tehuelche on the north face of Fitz Roy in 1995 and the second ascent of the Slovak Route on Fitz Roy’s southwest face in 1999, both alpine style. Born in Italy, raised in Argentina, and currently living in the U.S., he considers himself a Bariloche national, as this is the place where he first developed his passion for the mountains and where, one day, he hopes to enjoy his old age.

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