Sueños del Torre
A 4,500-foot ice climb linking the south face and west ridge of Cerro Torre.
“Goddamn it, guys! We gotta go climb some mountains!” Our friend Freddie Wilkinson threw the finished bottle of whiskey onto the ground and fell backward over a log. Getting drunk on nine-peso whiskey had become the most athletic activity among the climbers at Campo Bridwell, and everyone seemed ready to explode if the weather ever got good. Three weeks of waiting had delivered only a 12-hour weather window—just long enough for us all to make brief attempts and get totally knackered. Despite the bad weather, I remained optimistic, perhaps as a result of the company of climbers whom I admire and mountains I have dreamed of.
My dad began to take me alpine climbing in the Cascades when I was 10 years old. I was immediately obsessed, and it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon a picture of Cerro Torre. I had never seen, before or since, a mountain more spectacular and beautiful, and Cerro Torre became my dream. When I was 15 I found an article by Rolando Garibotti about Cerro Torre’s Compressor Route, and I was extremely excited to find that Rolo made it sound easy. Only 5.9? I lead 5.9! A2? A couple of days later I began to teach myself how to aid climb, and I decided I’d be ready to climb Cerro Torre when I was 17.
Two years later, fortunately, I had gained enough sense to realize I wasn’t ready for Cerro Torre, but my dreams of Patagonia lived on, and at 19 I finally had the opportunity to visit this ultimate alpine-climbing playground. I met my friend Bart Paull in El Chalten over my winter break from school in 2003, and we climbed Poincenot, Guillamet, and Aguja de la S. Although I had only climbed some of the easiest routes in the Fitz Roy region, the climbing was fantastic and I was hooked. I returned two years later, and after another route on Guillamet with Argentine friends, Mark Westman and I climbed Mermoz, Fitz Roy, St. Exupéry, and Rafael. It was the most successful climbing trip I’d ever had, but still Cerro Torre beckoned from across the Torre Glacier, and I finally felt I was ready.
In October 2006 I managed to convince Kelly Cordes to join me in attempting Cerro Torre. Five years earlier, I’d felt privileged merely to exchange e-mails with Kelly, and our previous climbing experience together consisted of only two days of cragging in Yosemite, but I knew him to be a nice guy and his past accomplishments spoke enough of his abilities. I wanted to try the west face of Cerro Torre, and Kelly agreed but suggested we might consider a direct start via the Marsigny-Parkin Route.
Cerro Torre’s west face, or Ferrari Route, begins in earnest at the Col of Hope, between Cerro Torre and Cerro Adela, and climbs 600 meters to the summit. Traditionally, the Col of Hope has been reached from the northwest by a couloir rising out of the Cirque of the Altars. The Cirque of the Altars must be reached either by a long ski across the icecap or by a traverse through the col between Cerro Stanhardt and Aguja Bifida. However, in 1994 Andy Parkin and François Marsigny established a new route to the col, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Their route climbed 800 meters of ice gullies on the left margin of the south face to reach the Col of Hope directly from the Torre Valley. From the Col of Hope, Marsigny and Parkin climbed partway up the west face but were beaten back by the infamous Patagonian weather; they retreated to the Cirque of the Altars. Their new line to the Col of Hope, and their ensuing epic retreat via the icecap, earned them the Piolet d’Or. In the years since, the Marsigny-Parkin route had been repeated to the Col of Hope by Bruno Sourzac and Laurance Monnoyeur and by Dani Ascaso and Pepe Chaverri, but no one had yet continued to Cerro Torre’s summit. Kelly’s idea seemed ambitious but inspiring, and I concurred that we should make it our primary objective.
High pressure finally arrived at the last hour of our trip, and on January 4 we strolled out of Campo Bridwell under sunny skies, crossed the Rio Fitz Roy tyrolean, and made our way up the Torre Glacier. The past weeks of storm had tried our patience and seeded doubts about the feasibility of our goal, so we stopped on a boulder to discuss our options. Should we proceed with our planned linkup or bet with higher odds of success and traverse through the Stanhardt-Bifida col? Our monocular revealed only a small level of detail on the Marsigny-Parkin, and Kelly thought it might just be snow over rock. I was more optimistic and felt that perhaps neither of us would ever see a more opportune time for an attempt. The weather forecast was excellent, and I reasoned that the recent fluctuations between storm and warm weather would have created good ice conditions. I convinced Kelly that we should stick with our primary goal, but I also knew that we would both be very disappointed should we arrive at the base and find my optimism misguided.
After a couple of fitful hours of sleep, we departed the Niponino Bivouac at 2:30 a.m. on January 5, our packs adequately light to make us feel totally unprepared and heavy enough to feel like a burden. We left behind any real bivouac equipment, but brought a stove and a dinner for each of us. We hiked peacefully up the glacier below the south face, and at 5:30 Kelly headed over the bergschrund as the sky began to lighten. Seventy meters of rope disappeared quickly. I shouted to Kelly that I was climbing and soon was delighted to find the gully filled with perfect grade 4 alpine ice. We had brought two small Ropeman ascenders to make simul-climbing steep terrain safer, and it was a good thing, for I was bathed in sunlight only five minutes into the pitch and moving quickly was mandatory. With the sun’s arrival bits of ice began to rain down, and I became particularly conscious of the serac looming over us. The serac that threatens the first half of the Marsigny-Parkin had shown no sign of activity during our entire trip, but once it is above your head it is hard to ignore.
Kelly set the first belay after about 150 meters, thankfully beneath an overhang, and by the time I had caught my breath and rehydrated he was off again. From there a tricky mixed traverse (M5) led into the next gully to the left, followed by short vertical ice steps for a 100- meter lead. On the third lead the rope stopped moving for a long time as Kelly grappled with a routefinding error and some mixed climbing to get back on track. I shifted anxiously from crampon to crampon, and when the rope began to move again I eagerly climbed up to Kelly’s belay, 200 meters higher and out of the serac’s trajectory.
I hadn’t expected such long lead blocks, but Kelly was obviously on a roll and I handed him the rack once again. The fourth lead gained another 200 meters, and in addition to more steep ice it contained a hospitable section of 60-degree snow that allowed a pleasant rest for my calves.
“I think this one will take us to the col,” Kelly said, looking above the belay. “Mind if I keep leading? You can take all the west face, and then it’ll be even.”
I certainly didn’t mind Kelly leading more, for he was still moving fast, but did he really expect me to lead the entire west face? As I followed the fifth lead up to the Col of Hope, I wondered if I were up to such a task.
We were both in need of rest, but the Col of Hope actually turned out to be a rather steep stance, so I trailed the rope up to a snow mushroom above and stomped out a picnic area on top. The view across the icecap and up the west face was breathtaking; the rime towers, mushrooms, and gargoyles were like no alpine terrain I had ever seen. The Marsigny-Parkin had passed quickly, but eight hours of almost constant climbing had us both worked, and it was only after about two hours of eating, drinking, and melting snow that I finally headed into the rime.
I soon reached the first major difficulty, the Helmet, and was curtly introduced to the style of climbing on the west face. The key was to look for grooves and depressions, where the ice was slightly more consolidated and a little bit of chimney technique reduced the outward pull on my tools. Nonetheless, the bulge at the top of the Helmet was unavoidable, and I zenned my way through with some luck and the use of a picket as an ice tool.
The mixed pitches above the Helmet were moderate, and in the evening sun I soon had a belay set at the base of the long headwall pitch, which had been rumored to be overhanging. Heading up at 9:30 p.m., I left one of our nine screws in the belay and promised not to fall before placing good protection. After about 20 meters I clipped my pack to an old V-thread, perhaps left by the successful Franco-Argentine ascent of the west face the previous summer. I had unpacked the skinny rope for hauling the backpacks, but because it was only 60 meters and our lead rope was 70 meters, I could not leave my pack at the belay stance.
About 30 meters out I placed my first screw, which left six screws for the remaining 40 meters of dead-vertical ice, and one for the belay. Fortunately, the ice on this pitch was mostly of good quality, the climbing no harder than solid AI5, and the angle not truly overhanging. But at the end of a long, tiring day I found it quite challenging. I chose the wrong exit groove at the top and had to make a quick pendulum off my last screw to gain the correct finish. I finished the pitch just as headlamps became necessary, relieved to find a fixed piton to equalize with my remaining ice screw.
We had hoped to climb through the night, but by the time the packs and Kelly arrived at the belay it had become clear that navigating the convoluted mushrooms of the summit ridge would not be feasible in the dark. But the dropping temperature and the arrival of a light wind made it clear that sitting out in the open would be a very cold proposition. We spied a slight depression half a rope length away, and although it wasn’t much Kelly went to work immediately and we soon had a small cubby in which to escape the wind. A few warm drinks helped to pass the time, and our freeze-dried dinners provided a small amount of comfort, except when the package ruptured inside my jacket, soaking my base layers with chicken soup.
The night was long enough to be extremely uncomfortable, but not dangerously cold, and after six hours we crawled stiffly back into the rime world. Above us lay only three mushroom pitches before the summit plateau, but all with sections of steep unconsolidated rime, so I attached a prototype pair of “wings” to the top of my tools that I hoped would give more purchase. Black Diamond had manufactured these aluminum wings to extend horizontally on both sides of the pick but still leave the front of the pick to penetrate real ice. Fortunately, on the first two pitches we discovered natural ice tunnels that ran straight through the bellies of the mushrooms. Formed by the wind, these fantastic, fully enclosed tunnels were lined with good ice and provided quick and easy passage underneath what would have been difficult rime climbing. They were the perfect size, wide enough to allow me to swing my tools but tight enough to let me lean back for a chimney rest.
On top of the second mushroom, only one difficult pitch remained, but here climbing directly up the rime was necessary. A vertical groove ran up the pitch for about 25 meters and then faded into blank rime for about 10 meters before an exit tunnel could be reached. I took all four pickets with me, leaving only Kelly’s plunged ice tools in the belay, and started up the groove. The climbing in the groove was reasonable, although the protection was not. As the groove grew progressively shallower, I began digging a vertical trough just deep enough to allow for some chimney technique. However, as the terrain continued to steepen my trough grew deeper, and eventually I tunneled inside the mountain for a few meters. I punched my way back outside near the top of a section of genuinely overhanging snow, forming a gigantic snow V-thread and the only decent protection on the pitch. Two terrifying aid moves off pickets gained the easier terrain above and eventually a natural tunnel to finish the pitch. Kelly followed the pitch with both packs, using ascenders on the section that I had aided, and then we joined the Compressor Route (above the bolted headwall) to quickly climb the easy summit mushroom.
It was surreal to finally stand on top of a mountain that I’d been dreaming of for so long, and I could tell that it meant something to Kelly as well. The view from the summit is a spectacular contrast: the polar landscape of the icecap less than one kilometer to the west, and the lush beech forests and pampas only a few kilometers to the east. We must have spent at least an hour relaxing on the summit before burying one of our pickets as a deadman and beginning the long descent of the Compressor Route. The descent was straightforward but long, allowing us plenty of time to marvel at all the bolts, admire all the fine terrain, and notice the reek of ammonia emanating from our worn-out bodies. We started the rappels with both ropes, but soon realized it was unnecessary and made almost all of our rappels with only the lead rope. To future parties on the Compressor Route, I would highly recommend a single 70-meter rope, which is sufficient for all the rappels and much preferable for most of them.
Headlamps were necessary again right after pulling the last rappel, and we began our stumble down-glacier back to Niponino, making sure to get off route several times and descend chossy gullies. Kelly swears he heard disco music, that nutter. I went with trusty visual hallucinations, transfixed by bobbing lights above the horizon. We arrived at Niponino at 2:30 a.m., exactly two days after departing, and were warmly greeted with delicious polenta by friends who were just waking to attempt other climbs. We spent the next two days hauling unhealthily heavy packs down to El Chalten, and departed Patagonia on the morning of January 9.
We did not climb any new terrain, but nonetheless I feel that our linkup was significant because it shows another natural route to the summit to be feasible. Under good conditions, I think this linkup is an excellent way to start the west face, albeit with some objective hazard. It doubles the amount of technical climbing required but vastly shortens the approach. I believe that our linkup is one of only three completed routes to Cerro Torre’s summit without using at least some of Maestri’s bolt ladders (the other two being the standard West Face and Area de los Vientos). Our descent, however, was of course greatly eased by this historical trail of compressed air and compressed difficulty that sadly renders Cerro Torre a compressed mountain.
As with any intense experience, it takes a few days or weeks to digest a difficult climb, and I found myself at first confused. “What the hell just happened? Did we really just climb Cerro Torre? Whoa, far out!” It still feels improbable that I climbed my perfect mountain, that I was finally able to achieve my ideal. With the dream completed and thereby destroyed, I will need to search for new inspiration.
Area: Cerro Torre, Patagonia
Ascent: Alpine-style linkup of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (800m, Marsigny-Parkin, 1994) on the south face of Cerro Torre with the upper 600 meters of the Ragni di Lecco Route (Chiappa, Conti, Ferrari, Negri, 1974) on the west face and west ridge; descent by the southeast ridge (Compressor Route). The combination was 1,400m, AI6 M5, with two aid moves off pickets and a pendulum; Kelly Cordes and Colin Haley, January 5-7, 2007.
A Note About the Author:
Colin Haley, 22, has lived all his life in Seattle, Washington, where he is a student of geology at the University of Washington. Years of climbing in the North Cascades have given him a fondness for had weather and a forté in downclimbing steep, unconsolidated snow. He writes, “I would like to thank the American Alpine Club for the Mountain Fellowship Fund grant that helped make this climb possible, and for its continuing support of young alpine climbers.”