American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Argentina, Southern Patagonia, Chalten Massif, Aguja Mermoz, Vol de Nuit, First Winter Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

Aguja Mermoz, Vol de Nuit, first winter ascent. In early August Ian Parnell and I arrived in a cold and snowy Chalten, bound for Fitz Roy. Within three days we had dug a meter-deep trench all the way to the Paso Superior, spending two of those days swimming up from Rio Blanco against waves of spindrift and avalanche, under rucksacks that even Sherpas would refuse to carry. Morale was low, and I feared that Ian thought that I’d tricked him into believing it was summer in Patagonia, not winter. (We didn’t spot any slack lines or Americans.) Luckily for me, two of Ian’s expensive cameras broke due to cold-related illness, which took his mind off the weather.

After a few days of snow-hole fun, we set off to try the Devil’s Dihedral on Fitz Roy, a.k.a. the “Flushing Slovenian Death Couloir.” Looking back it seems overoptimistic for us to have thought we could climb the 1,300m route alpine style, in winter, sans portaledges or camera crew, especially with the non-Slovenian bodies we were using. When Ian (the U.K.’s very own alpine Evel Knievel) said he was scared, it made me question the sanity of our mission. One- thousand feet up the route and with thankfully nowhere to sleep, we had a sudden urge to spend the night in our wet sleeping bags, in our enchanted, urine-coated snow cave, so we bailed.

Looking for something else to occupy ourselves, we decided to try the Parkin route (Vol de Nuit) on the east face of Mermoz. I’d tried this route two winters previously and been washed off it by a storm, so I knew there was a good chance we would fail, then go home. Luckily, cold pressure sat over the mountain for three days. We both like the cold, but even we found this cold tough to cope with and, despite wearing every piece of clothing we had (including synthetic belay parkas), froze our asses off. The climbing was primarily mixed free (hard Scottish VI/VII) up corners, with one A1 pitch. There was also a lot of steep powder. Highlights included moving together up a 70m pitch of paper-thin 80° ice, me taking a 40' fall, and spending the night in a frozen sleeping bag with the same insulating properties as the string hammock I was hanging in. At around midnight on the third day we reached the end of the route at the summit ridge (200m horizontally from the summit) and, after spending several frozen seconds there, rapped the route in four hours (fourteen 60m raps). We agreed that this had been one of the toughest routes we had climbed, due to the extreme conditions encountered. That night the weather broke.

Andy Parkin soloed the route in a day, and the route is a testament to his skill and mental imbalance. So is winter climbing in Patagonia worth the pain? Well, with the whole massif to yourself, who cares?

Andy Kirkpatrick, U.K.

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