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True Value

True Value

Finding beauty and danger on the first alpine-style ascent of Torre Egger and a new route on Cerro Fitz Roy, Patagonia.

Tim O’Neill

I blindly struggle to find a small foothold on life. Exposure looms like a vulture circling fresh road kill. My heavy pack plus a pair of clunky boots multiplied by total exhaustion equals “freaking desperate.” The rain that scared us away from our second attempt on Fitz Roy’s massive west face is still fresh on the granite. Things are slick, serious; we are unroped. “Nathan where’s that edge you used?” “Put my boot on it–now!” “Hold on dude,” he answers distracted, his words directed somewhere else. I figure he’s getting his footing, preparing to spot me if I pitch; perhaps he’s wiping off the grit from the hold. I’m getting pumped. “NATHAN,” I shout. He pushes my foot into place, holds it and then sheepishly offers, “Sorry dude, I was busy digging out a sweet one.” He holds up a striking black, quartz crystal. At once I forgive him. Beauty and danger are synonymous in Patagonia. Isn’t that why we came?

Nathan Martin and I met up in Puerto Natales, on January 11,2002, amidst the cigarette smoke and garbled Chilean Spanish of Ruperto’s Bar. Nathan had been hard at work in Moab, Utah paying for his trip ahead of time, a fascinating concept. I spent December kayaking on Chile’s pristine, rain forest-edged rivers that run below snow capped Andean giants. A dream to paddle internationally became realized. Now it’s time to dream again. With our Patagonian dreams encompassing towering spires, impossible scale, and certain anguish, they often border on nightmares. We arrive in Argentine Patagonia, and particularly Chalten, the town several miles downhill from the climbing, to vomiting, laughter, and friends. We will depart two months later in the same fashion. We’ve been hearing mixed reports about the weather. “Nope nothing, no summits for anyone,” said a pair of disheartened South African climbers. “Dude, I heard Jarred and Tofu scored a half dozen summits,” Nathan piped in. Either way, it’s not cool to miss the often -solitary windows of opportunity in Patagonia. If you do miss one, you feel like a schmuck, silently chastising yourself for blowing it; wishing you were there instead of elsewhere missing out.

Five days later we are missing out, big time. We humped killer loads from Campamento Bridwell seven hours up the Torre Valley’s dry glacier to our favorite ABC, Noruegos. Being builders by trade we’ve a penchant for constructing bivys. Immediately we break ground on our third spec home, having built two here during the 2000 season. Excavating, laying stones, and eventually collapsing inside. In the morning the sky is weird, wind and drizzle spook us. We descend to Bridwell. In the morning sun an empty camp causes us to scream in unison, “Shit, we’re blowing it.” We re-ascend hurriedly from Bridwell to Noruegos for a spot of lunch. This time we continue walking over to the west face of Bifida, at 4:30 p.m., in a white-hot, ozone hole induced furnace. The idea to climb the peak was spontaneous and we carried virtually no information regarding our proposed first ascent. This would set the tone for our entire trip. At midnight, exhausted, we dig in the snow with a pilfered shovel, make a bivy platform, brew hot tasteless crap, and get pelted by falling ice all night. We wake to splitters-ville, magnificent blue skies. At 8:15 a.m. in a methamphetamine-like daze, we speed climb half a pitch on Bifida’s striking west flank before the weather window slams shut on our little fingies. Ouch, what a bitch, it’s a bail festival. We retreat from the face, and hike up and over to our stone condo at Noruegos in a blistering gale. Below Standhardt’s east face we ponder the fate of a Spaniard who perished in a crevasse in this identical spot last month. We stop to gape at Torre Egger’s ferocious east aspect, crane our necks to listen to Pete and “Moch” suffer. They are descending from over a thousand feet up with their haul bags and ropes from a free attempt that only failed because Mother Nature didn’t want them to play any longer. I console us with a weak spirited, “At least we aren’t up there hating it like those guys.” Not yet.

On the veranda at Noruegos the following day, over tea and Austrian-style hot cakes, Pete and Moch give us the green light, their topo, and well wishes for our proposed first alpine style ascent of the Torre Egger. They are over it, beaten down by the unpredictable weather, and descend to Bridwell Euro style, wearing only tightie-whities below the belt. Sitting in the proud Cerro Torre throne and gazing at nothing in particular, I am stuck by the immensity of this place. It seems endless in every regard, no limit to any alpine inclination—I feel like a kid in a candy store, only a kid with wooden teeth and a bovine network of stomachs. “It’s time for this baby to have its umbilical cord severed,” Nathan declares, startling my attention back to Noruegos. He’s referring to the Egger’s previous eight ascents all employing fixed ropes and siege tactics. “Sure Dude, sounds feasible,” I chime in, although I nervously recall not signing on for an ascent of Torre Egger during this tour of duty. We dry our clothing and equipment in the sun and prepare to enter Patagonia’s no mans land in the early morning. It has been almost nine years since someone has stood atop the Torre Egger’s phantasmal ice mushroom, or for that matter even made it halfway up the formation. Sleep comes slowly; I roll another smoke.

Our first attempt ends at the beginning of the 2002 Austrian variation, 800 feet above the glacier, just to the left of a hanging serac so massive it seems continental. The badly drawn topo leads us astray; or are we just dense? We spend hours reconnoitering a massive section of black and orange rock. The sky darkens, the clouds loom, I preach doom, and we rap at 5 p.m., disgruntled and tired. The walk across the glacier to our “casa de piedra” in blustering rain is numbing. Already our second failure and we’ve only been here one week. We hardly speak except to ask rhetorically, “Why are we here?” The answer of course does not exist. Living the question will have to suffice. Tomokadzu Nagaoka, who epitomizes the Zen alpinist, awaits us at ABC. We find him lying on the ground ensconced in a pitifully tattered bivy sack, sand blasting his exposed face. He and his partner have also failed. They were attempting an alpine style ascent of Exocet on Standhardt’s east face; falling ice and severely deteriorating conditions forced them down. “Tomo” is smiling in fact he always smiles—and from it radiates his absolute strength of character. His eyes alone speak volumes on patience, passion, and persistence; his English doesn’t allow much more. Though he has no Patagonia summits that I am aware of, Tomo, with his incessant drive, becomes my focus for inspiration.

Again we rest in sun having climbed the previous day in shit. We’re busy blowing it once again. You feel impotent when given the opportunity to score, only to limp back to camp unadorned, no summit hash mark etched on your sword. Timing is everything here; it’s a mixture of 75 percent luck and 25 percent wisdom. If you’re off it can shatter your confidence and whittle away your strength until you simply vanish in a cloud of remorse. “What would Tomo do?” becomes my mantra. On January 22nd at 5:30 a.m. we begin climbing on Torre Egger for our second attempt and do not stop moving for the next 60-plus hours. I experience transformation on so many levels I feel like a stranger; surely I wouldn’t have chosen such insanity.

We enjoyed our few moments on top of the Egger’s towering, ephemeral ice mushroom peering into a whiteout. A storm had been increasing for several hours and our 1 a.m. breach onto the summit coincided with its apex. Nathan had just spent the last two-plus hours leading up the mushroom, climbing the most difficult alpine pitches of his life. All of his accumulated skill and strength were required to keep him alive. Torre Egger’s top marked the passing of the final boundary, as we became the sixth and seventh persons to have climbed all three of the Torre Group. “How do we get down?” I yelled to Nathan as much as to myself. He tersely answered, “1 don’t know, I haven’t had the chance to think about it.” We decided to chop a bollard, our first ever. We simply stamped down the unconsolidated rime ice and freshly fallen snow to form a 10-foot semicircle about a foot deep. As Nathan dropped over the edge into darkness I belayed him from the other side of the shroom with our 60-meter static rope, and waited for the snow to slice through.

“The snow’s beginning to stick to everything Tim; careful climbing in those boots,” Nathan warns from his single-cam anchor situated thousands of feet above the barren glacier. It’s 4:30 a.m. and the wind desperately wants to scour us off the face. I think of sleep, a warm bed with my woman; hell I’d settle for a gravel bed in a rock-hewn cave with Nathan, but that is momentary folly. I am abruptly brought back to our ludicrous position on Torre Egger’s east face as a gust whips a frozen aider, stings my face. We began descending over three hours ago and still have a mountain of rappels left before we reach the relative safety of the glacier. We want nothing more than to continue down, but a granite flake 50 feet away has different plans; perhaps it needs companionship, or a trophy. I navigate across broken, slick terrain, to free the snagged cord. Foolishly I drop the end below me instead of carrying it back. As Nathan tells me that the cord is trapped again I realize how truly alone we are in this horridly inhospitable place. I am an alien. I traverse through tombstone-sized teetering blocks another time and pull with all my spite as Nathan yells for me to use my knife. It pops free before I can finish the math on how many raps we’d have with a single rope. When I down climb to the belay I ease onto it in relief.

“The sky is starting to lighten in the east.” I look out to the horizon to verify Nathan’s report and we’re reassured by the promise of a new day. It’s amazing what confidence the light brings—it scares away the bogeymen, the monsters of the night. For hours we’ve been rappelling past the previous day’s labors. I blankly recall the chimney that I ascended using an ice axe in one hand and chalk on the other, the hook move that broke apart as I grabbed onto the holds above. Oh yeah, there’s where Nathan chopped the ice ledge we stopped on last night, no, that was two nights ago. As Nathan toils below me smacking pitons and stoppers into icy cracks I sway back and forth poised on a ledge. Fatigued beyond belief I clip myself into the belay; moments later I feel my legs buckle as I instantaneously fall asleep. How sweet is luck and for whom does the bell toll? Music from a phantom DJ plays in my head. I can swear that I hear the Beatles, I even ask Nathan, who’s a rope length away if he hears the eerie melodies. He doesn’t even hear my question; perhaps he hears Led Zeppelin. Spindrift avalanches roll down upon us incessantly and fill our hoods, sometimes even our mouths. I watch as the wind plays with them. The snow cascading off the enormous hanging serac mesmerizes me as it is blown back up and redeposited above in a perpetual, transitory dance. It is the frozen smoke rising from an eternal ice furnace. If there is a god this is it.

Back at Bridwell the celebration is unanimous. Almost everyone has summited, the Brazilians, Chileans, Brits, and a slew of Americans. Success also relates to a safe return to base camp; to see your friends’ faces is victory. Nathan, spurned on by the absence of tobacco, arrived in camp several hours before me. He’s already buzzing hard on a liter of “Gato Negro,” but within minutes I am on his heels, due to an ultra susceptibility caused by super fatigue. Soon I am “stick in the eye” drunk. The happiness of being surrounded by close friends, sharing drink and food overwhelms me. I lie down on the ground and pass out.

The following day, descending to Chalten to rest and to escape from the proximity of the peaks, we run into Isaac who is gathering climbers to search for his overdue friend. The news that Frank Van Herreweghe is missing sobers us, makes us fearful. We stand in the pouring rain speechless and exhausted. I stare into blank tired faces then at the running muddy water at my feet. Two days ago Lorne Glick and Mark Davis last heard Frank while they were climbing the Super Couloir around 5:30 p.m. Frank was rope-soloing the California Route, which joins into the top of the Super Couloir at the Three Towers section, and asked them about their nearness to the summit. They never saw him. A severe storm, the same one we encountered while descending the Egger, enshrouded Fitz Roy the night Frank would have been descending, and the storm remained for two full days. Because it is impossible to scale the peak to search for him, many of us do what we can and circumnavigate it looking at the advanced base camps and scanning the approaches. The mood in Chalten is somber. The weather is indifferent; it continues its cycle of randomness.

After several days recuperating below at Camp Madsen we cannot ignore the continued opportunities of stable weather. It’s time to attempt our next objective, a new route on the monstrous west face of Cerro Fitz Roy. Two years ago we watched from Noruegos as Kevin Thaw and Alan Mullin climbed the Czech Route on Fitz Roy’s west face. I was intrigued then by a prominent series of dihedrals that shot straight up from the crest of a striking shield of gray from the Czech Route’s sixth pitch. Kevin peered up into this system and provided us with key information regarding the improbable gaping off-widths that loomed above. His foray unlocked the secret to opening up this alpine passage: bring multiple pieces of wide gear— really wide gear.

Our first attempt, on January 31, ends atop Sitting Man Ridge, our ABC for the route, which lies 1,000 vertical feet above the Torre Glacier. After spending 17 hours trapped in the confines of our bivy sacks we ascend a few hundred feet up a severely broken rib on Fitz Roy’s northwest flank before clouds, rain, and wind force us down. Back in Bridwell I feel lethargic, my mind and body crying out for rest. The good weather does not capitulate to my demands and forces us back up valley. The most direct line, our chosen approach, teems with an abundance of objective dangers. What is normally steep snow interspersed with shattered rock outcroppings has deteriorated under persistent sun into giant expanses of mixed terrain and falling rock. I grow to despise this section of the earth, likening it to an unrelenting root canal without anesthetic.

On our second attempt, on February 5, under building pressure and bluebird skies, we roll the dice at the base of Sitting Man Ridge. It’s noon and what’s left of the snow sticks to my dull crampons as we start up. An enormous rock scar in the middle of the approach intermittently releases worrisome slides of exfoliating debris. I hear the nauseating whirl of a dentist’s drill. Sculpted boulders surround our ABC and from the hollows that pit their tops we collect rainwater and brew Nescafe mochas. At 9 a.m. the next morning we depart from ABC equipped with bivy gear and a change in plans. We opt for a stay on Déjà Vu ledge at the base of the gray shield. After navigating hours of vertical talus and connecting sketchy unroped bouldery moves we arrive at the proper base of the wall. Two pitches later we reach the ledge and settle down for the night. In the morning we climb to the top of the gray shield and are afforded a quick preview of what lies ahead before rain soaks our hopes and us. Exasperated and feeling beaten down, we drop to Bridwell in a storm that saturates us to our cores. In Chalten we play soccer, eat meat, talk on the phone to our families, and try to act like normal people. It doesn’t work. Unbelievably when the sky opens we once again race up to our gear stash on Sitting Man Ridge.

“I will never ascend to this ridge again,” I silently vow. It is February 15 and as we deftly retrace familiar hazards a fundamental part of me is bewildered by our third attempt. An inner force drives me so strongly that I disregard an intensifying disgust of this warfare with the mountain. My front points slip off an edge. Regaining my focus, I leave fear and doubt below. At 1:30 a.m., after a one-hour respite, we shoulder our packs and silently stride off toward infinity. In total darkness we ascend to the wall. I hear my breathing, hear loose stones turning under Nathan’s boots. As night becomes day we approach our high point, then stop on a rounded ledge to brew up and smoke. I take us up the first series of new pitches, thanking the fact that I ran back to Bridwell two days earlier to retrieve our forgotten three pieces of wide gear. We are going speed style, in blocks with the second jummaring with an unwieldy pack. I run it out, in love with the sunshine, feeling connected to the stone. Nathan takes over his second block of leads and I begin to pencil a topo. “There’s three to choose from,” Nathan cries out, describing the cracks that await him in the section we thought may be welded shut, not a weakness to prey on. With dusk descending we pull over the west face ridge onto a 60-meter long rolling ledge. We fix a rope length above and decide to wait for light. By 3 a.m. I swallow a gulp of water melted from dirty ice then pass out and wake up, pass out and wake up. In the morning we stir out of the cold night, swollen and sore. By the time we reach the summit at 5:30 p.m. we are incredulous that our luck has held out. A storm’s been threatening all day in the west, hovering above the icecap, and doesn’t spoil our summit dream.

The time we spend on top is filled with gratitude, awe, and Tomo-sized smiles. The unity of these experiences transcends friendship, goes beyond the tangible, the known. Through them we view the alternatives to the status quo, perhaps even perceive true value and vitality. Our descent of the Super Couloir from Fitz Roy’s summit will be the most horrific experience either of us has ever had to endure. Encountering Frank’s body 15 rappels below in the dead of night, grinding through carabiners and belay plates with grit embedded, sodden ropes while praying that the falling rock isn’t stamped with our number. We then mistakenly walk out for 12 hours down the Polone Valley, having missed Paso Cuadrado, over unstable, treacherous glacier and talus. Eventually night descends and we collapse into it far away from our ethereal summit, far away from even ourselves.

There is a duality that exists in all forms of life, an unlikely synthesis of opposites. In mine it has never been more distinct than when I am climbing in places such as Patagonia, where beauty and danger combine.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Argentine Patagonia

Ascents: Titanic variation (1200m, VI 5.10 A2 WI6) on Torre Egger’s Italian-Austrian route. Nathan Martin and Tim O’Neill.

Tonta Suerte (1800m, VI 5.10 A1 WI3) new route on Cerro Fitz Roy, February 17. Nathan Martin and Tim O’Neill.