Gone with the Wind
A three~year struggle to climb the north pillar of Cerro Murallón, Patagonia.
Silence. Not the slightest trace of noise. Even Robert’s breath made no sound. Small clouds of mist escaped from his mouth at regular intervals and vanished instantly in the icy air. I kept staring at the same point on the ceiling, as if my gaze could drill a hole into the crushing hopelessness. The halogen bulbs of my headlamp filled the ice cave with a harsh glow. A velvety layer of frost covered our sleeping bags, ropes, pitons, and dry rations. –3°C. I couldn’t help but think of the refrigerator room of a slaughterhouse. For days a hurricane-force storm had been raging outside. The snow and ice walls—over a meter thick—absorbed all sound and every ray of light. We were buried alive. Nevertheless, we were here of our own free will. And for the third consecutive year we were possessed by a 1,000-meter-high north face at the end of the world on the Patagonia ice cap. This wall was as precious as a jewel to us, and we courted it like we would a beautiful woman. Always at the same time of the year, in the months of November and December of 2003, 2004, and 2005, we struggled to the foot of the wall. Twice we had been harshly turned back. Diva Murallón enchanted us and—with total disregard for logic and common sense—we would have returned even a fourth or a fifth time in case we failed again. Until she would give in to our desire.
Years ago a picture of Cerro Murallón, an almost unknown mountain even among expedition climbers, captivated Robert Jasper and me. Murallón rises into the sky south of Fitz Roy like a huge fortress. At 2,831 meters, its elevation is negligible. However, the technical difficulties and remoteness make it quite a challenge. In this photograph we could see a huge, mostly overhanging pillar soaring some 600 meters, followed by a ridge leading to a 400-meter-high wall that reared up like a gigantic breaking wave. The line was of unsurpassable simplicity and beauty. Our appetites were additionally whetted by the words of the great climber Casimiro Ferrari, who wrote of Cerro Murallón, “If Cerro Torre is the mountain that left its deepest mark on me and if Fitz Roy was technically the hardest, then Murallón was the peak that put my mental and physical powers to the toughest test.” What kind of mountain must it be to make the great Ferrari pay such obeisance? It took him four expeditions between 1979 and 1984 to reconnoiter an approach to Murallón and subsequently to climb the colossal northeast pillar.
Prior to Ferrari, only one expedition had been successful. It was the untiring Briton Eric Shipton who, together with three others, reached the summit plateau in 1961. Their route from the northwest is perhaps the easiest line. However, the weather conditions were so terrible that it remains uncertain if the team really climbed the highest ice mushroom. This detail is unimportant on a one-kilometer-long plateau with small, technically easy protuberances, and Robert and I consider Shipton and his team to be the first ascensionists of Cerro Murallón.
The shortest distance from the last outpost of civilization—the Estancia Christina—to Murallón is 40 kilometers as the crow flies. It took me, Robert, our cameraman, Sebastian, and our photographer, Klaus, almost three weeks to carry our equipment and provisions through pathless terrain and dangerous glaciers to the foot of our wall. Filled with awe, we stood under our pillar, realizing that our equipment and—most of all—the remaining time, would never suffice to reach the summit via our planned route. We vowed to return. In spite of everything we managed to pluck a very nice first ascent at the right edge of the north face. We called this route The Lost World and deposited most of our gear at the foot of our original goal for another attempt the following year.
This time we planned to reach our mountain from the north via the ice cap. The approach was double the distance of last year’s, but we had to do equipment carries only from Piedra del Fraile up to the Passo Marconi. From there we could pull our belongings over the ice cap on sleds.
It took us not quite a week to get our gear up to Passo Marconi. After a few days of bad weather we set out across the ice on November 2. Our friends Sebastian, Tobias, and Pater were to accompany us to base camp and return to civilization via Estancia Christina. With their help we could drag our equipment to base camp without further depots and portages.
Four days without a breath of wind, a crystal-clear sky, and hard snow turned the approach into an exhausting but nonetheless pleasurable experience. It was the typical Patagonian lull before the storm. On the morning of day four, Pater, Sebastian, and Tobias set out for Estancia Christina while Robert, Klaus, and I headed for Murallón’s north face.
For the next five weeks we had to fend entirely for ourselves. We did not see a human soul, nor another creature, nor a flower. When we reached the foot of the wall, we realized it was impossible to build a safe ice cave as a base camp as we had the year before, for there was not nearly enough snow. The next day we constructed huge snow walls around our tents so we would not be entirely without shelter in the devastating storms we knew would come.
By evening the good weather had already turned into a nightmare. The wind carried snowflakes horizontally over our wall and in no time buried the tents. At 2 a.m. I awoke from a restless slumber. Snow, hard as concrete, pressed against the side of my head. I pounded my fist against the roof of the tent. Panic began to well up; Klaus and I had to get out of there as fast as possible. Robert, lying near us in an even smaller tent, had surely been completely covered. The back of our tent had already caved in. Like two maniacs we carved out an upward-leading tunnel, using our cooking pots. Outside, all hell had broken loose, but Robert at least was okay. Gusts of wind repeatedly blew us off our feet. We battled the elements with our pots and shovels until eight in the morning.
How vulnerable we were! If one of us got injured, our fancy sat phone would be of little use. By the second night we were stumbling like punch-drunk boxers. However, this is exactly why the mountains in Patagonia count among the biggest challenges alpinism has to offer. On Cerro Torre or Fitz Roy you at least can weather the storms in base camp, but on Murallón every storm could mean the end. The mountain was playing cat-and-mouse with the tiny, two-legged intruders. Two days after showing its claws, the kitty started to purr. Up went the air pressure, the storm died down, and one morning the sun shone from a cloudless sky. While Klaus started to put the camp in order, Robert and I finally laid hands on our dream pillar.
It was an incredible feeling to climb the first meters in these hostile but grandiose surroundings. For almost two years we had prepared ourselves mentally and physically for this moment. In this instant we were rewarded for all our deprivations and trials.
Pitch by pitch, the climbing got harder. Robert and I had decided from the beginning to do without bolts entirely, even at belays. We were climbing in wonderful cracks and corners, and as we gained height, the wall got steeper and steeper. We had brought 850 meters of line to fix; the rest of the route would have to be done alpine style. Late at night, we rappelled to base camp.
Although the air pressure had increased by only a few millibars and seemed to predict unstable conditions, the spell of good weather lasted over a week. On the following days we climbed until we could barely lift our arms. Every morning we started out at first light, hiked for two hours to the start of the climb, and jumared to the previous high point. Robert or I would lead most of the day while Klaus documented the climbing. At the belays we put in pitons; in most cases nuts worked well as protection. Most of the climbing was at a level of 5.11 to 5.12. We were trying for a pure free ascent, but 400 meters up we reached a compact overhanging section split by a fine crack. To speed up our ascent we aided two pitches, planning to free them later. We estimated the difficulties to be hard 5.13—or even a digit more. After five days of climbing, 600 meters of elevation, and 17 pitches, we finally stood on the top of the lower pillar.
Climbing simultaneously along the easy ridge, we reached the second section of the north face. As we set up the belay on a narrow ledge, the sight above almost took our breath away: the wall curved outward like a huge petrified wave. The first two pitches were extremely overhanging, with technically hard cracks of every width. I was able to free the first pitch at 5.13. On the second I had to succumb to aid, but it should also go free. Late in the evening Robert aided another overhanging pitch. For the first time we began to believe that we might reach the summit. From our high point it was about 300 meters to the summit plateau. It would take one day in alpine style, or two at the most, to reach the top. Robert and I were euphoric while rappelling to the base in the dark.
Murallón had been merciful, but during the night the mountain started to display its ugly side. During the next day the storm tore the flysheet of Robert’s tent to pieces. With needle and thread in numb fingers, we tried to repair the damage while the storm pelted us with slush. We felt like demonstrators attacked by police water cannons. In the evening we had to take down Robert’s tent. Now the three of us had to lie in a small two-person tent. Each of us spent the night clinging to a tent pole; in the morning our flysheet also tore to shreds. It was apocalyptic.
We moved to a high plateau in hopes of being better protected. The following days were hell. We deposited the sleds, a bag of climbing gear, skis, and most of our Powerbars at the foot of a talus gully leading up to the plateau. The storm continued to rage for several days. As it began to get warmer, the fresh snow started to melt, and in the night torrents poured from the rocks and turned our campsite into a lake. Everything got drenched. It continued to storm, the rain turning again to snow. While pitching the tents on a new campsite, I saw my sleeping mat blow away; for the remainder of the expedition I had to lie on the aluminum bags from our dry rations.
Every day the tents became more and more damaged, until they were hardly recognizable. As the storm continued to strengthen, we decided to make our way to the distant Pascale Hut to wait out the weather. We knew this decision drastically reduced our chance of reaching the summit, but it was out of our hands. With snow pelting our faces, we broke camp and tried to arrange an orderly retreat. But when we reached our cache at the foot of the gully, we found that it had been buried by a landslide; with luck we managed to salvage our bag of climbing gear and the skis. The rest was gone.
For two days we struggled over the Upsala Glacier to the Pascale Hut. The miserable weather imprisoned us for a week, but then the barometer started to rise, the storm let off, and after more than three weeks Murallón re-emerged from the clouds. With our questionably repaired tent, dried sleeping bags, and fully recuperated bodies, we covered the two-day hike back to base camp on the plateau in one push. On the following day the sky was cloudless, but hurricane-force winds raged around the summit. In the evening the pressure was declining. Despite this, we stuck to our attempt, knowing it would be our last. Belaying each other, we jumared up the alarmingly frayed ropes for 400 meters before our ascent was brought to an abrupt stop. Above, the ropes were completely tattered, hanging from shredded strands.
We had lost the Patagonian poker game. We cleaned the first 400 meters of fixed rope and deposited it on the plateau with the rest of our equipment. Then we returned to the Pascale Hut in another forced march and reached Estancia Christina the next day.
We had lost and won simultaneously. We had climbed most of a route on one of the hardest mountains of the world. To us it was a magic line worth a good struggle. We were possessed by a dream and knew that only if we realized this dream would we be free again. This time the dream had “gone with the wind”—and with this the route had its name.
In the ice cave we were safe. We could sleep and cook or even go on a fantasy trip with a good book. Nonetheless, we were under great pressure. At the beginning it was only two of us on the mountain; Hans Martin Götz and Klaus the photographer were planning to follow three weeks later. So Robert and I lay in our sleeping bags, continuously pondering our possibilities, the strategy, and, of course, the dangers. With just two of us, the approach to our climb through a maze of seracs and crevasses brought a fair amount of danger. We didn’t dare contemplate the possibility of an accident up on the wall. The line we drew was definitely on the side of safety.
Now on our third attempt, we had learned from our previous mistakes. This time we had chosen the southern approach route via Estancia Christina. As we knew the way perfectly, we could reach base camp even in unfavorable weather. As we didn’t want to waste our valuable strength, time, and gaps of good weather on hauling equipment, five Argentinean friends helped us with the transport.
Excluding the last 300 meters, we knew exactly what was awaiting us. Our biggest fear was failing once more and having to suffer through the void that would follow. In our ice cave we were condemned to idleness, which is always difficult to bear. We ruminated and talked about our worries and fears, but in the end each of us had to sort things out for himself.
We already had prepared ourselves for the horrific scenario of spending another two or three weeks in the ice cave. Then, suddenly, the pressure stabilized. Although it had risen no more than five millibars, the storm suddenly lost its force and the sky cleared entirely during the night. It was three in the morning when we climbed out of the ice cave. For the first time in more than a week, we took more than 10 steps, and the effort almost caused a breakdown. We felt like patients forced to run a marathon after spending a week in an intensive-care ward. Each of our packs weighed more than 30 kilograms. At the base of the climb we sank into powder up to our hips and burrowed our way to the rock inch by inch. The cards had been remixed, and a brand new game was about to start.
Again, we had to climb all the pitches, put in protection, and fix new lines. But now just two of us had to do the work. That meant we had to shoulder more weight and jumar with heavier loads. On the other hand we experienced every moment more intensely. Although Robert and I had gotten along extremely well the year before, now we seemed to synchronize even better. We were doing the climb in a style both of us considered ideal. Number one, we were adamant about ascending the wall without putting in a single bolt, even if the technical difficulties were extremely demanding. Second, we did not want to share leads with other members of a big team. We were getting frighteningly close to our ideal of modern expedition climbing.
The first three pitches were entirely covered by verglas. So, the following morning, Robert, the great mixed climber, was able to let off steam to his heart’s delight with his ice tools and crampons. It was much harder than the year before, but, contrary to our expectations, we made good progress. On the second day we climbed halfway up the lower pillar. That evening, back in the ice cave, we developed a plan that could get us either to the top or into deep trouble. In the next window of good weather we wanted to reach the ledge under the headwall, bivouac there, and climb the following day until we reached the summit—with headlamps, if need be.
Three days later, after a short stormy interlude, we shot up the face like cannonballs. To save time we jumared for two pitches up the tattered shreds of our fixed ropes from the year before, belaying each other for these antics. I was leading one of these pitches, hanging by my ascenders from an old fixed rope, five meters out from my last shaky nut, when I started to race downward, as if somebody had cut the cables of an elevator. When I came to a halt, I was hanging 10 meters lower, frantically clasping the ascenders that were still fixed to the old rope. The sheath had peeled off, and I had whizzed down the core until the compressed sheath jammed in my jumars.
On the northern horizon Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy were holding an impressive glowing contest when we reached the bivouac ledge under the headwall. We had been on our feet for 17 hours. We had traded down jackets and sleeping bags in our packs for more ropes, so we huddled in bivy sacks wearing just rain shells above our clothes, slurping our soup with an angle piton. Suddenly, we noticed two black dots on the glacier below. It was our friends arriving, but unfortunately too late. We exchanged greetings with our flashlights before Robert and I started our extended shivering session.
During the night, clouds started to move in.
began to box against the inside of my bivy bag in the vain hope of warming up. Shortly after 5 a.m.
Robert took the vertical stage for the final act.
Only three pitches had to be climbed to reach last year’s highpoint. This section was so overhanging that we were forced to install fixed ropes, as we wouldn’t have had a chance of rappelling it otherwise. Laboriously,
Robert aided his way up; it was much too cold for free climbing. More and more clouds arrived, hiding the rising sun.
It took us until
11 to reach untrodden
ground. There it was again, this feeling of discovery, coupled with the hope that this time we might reach the summit.
I took over the lead, and with every pitch the wall became a little less steep.
We reached a huge system of cracks and chimneys, completely frozen in the back.
Almost every nut and Friend placement had to be painstakingly chopped out of the ice as a deep black cloud raced toward us.
Immersed in a surrealistic glow, Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre were swallowed by the cloudbank. Again, Robert took the sharp end of the rope, as my free-climbing abilities were powerless against the ice-covered cracks. In our single-mindedness we had lost all sense of time. We saw the summit plateau almost at touching distance, but we also saw the threatening storm at our backs. It was growing colder and darker. Snowflakes drifted down as harbingers of the approaching storm. It was a race against the forces of nature.
At nine in the evening Robert reached the summit plateau. Shreds of clouds whirled around its edge. We embraced. That was it. In my dreams I had tried to imagine what this moment would feel like. Every time tears had welled up. But reality was different. For three years we had been obsessed by this magic line. Perhaps in this moment of success we were nothing but relieved.
Area: Hielo Continental, Patagonia
Route: First ascent of Gone with the Wind (1,200 meters, 27 pitches, 7c+ A2 M4), north pillar of Cerro Murallón (2,831 meters), Stefan Glowacz and Robert Jasper, summit plateau reached November 13,2005. Glowacz notes: “During our descent in the night we cleaned the fixed ropes from the upper part. In the lower part it was impossible to clean the ropes because of the storm. We waited another week to return to the wall to clean the last 500 meters of fixed ropes, but the weather was horrible for another month. Before leaving for Estancia Christina, we cached two haul bags of gear and dry food, and our Argentinean friends will return to Murallón in the fall of 2006 to recover them.”
A Note About the Author:
Born in 1965, Stefan Glowacz lives in Garmisch-Partenkirchen in southern Germany. During the late 1980s and early 1990s he was one of the world’s top sport and competition climbers, but since then he has focused on climbing remote big walls by “fair means,” approaching by sea kayak, sailboat, or by foot.