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South America, Argentina, Southern Patagonia, Aguja de la S, The Art of War

Aguja de la S, The Art of War. With rumors of a weather window opening, Crystal Davis-Robbins, a 24-year-old also from the Durango area, and I frantically schlepped loads to our high camp at Niponino. A few Canadians, not as influenced by the bad weather as we were, had just attempted a new route up the unclimbed south face of de la S. They reported a “super steep overhanging headwall, with several splitter crack systems.” This was all we needed to hear. From the east de la S is much shorter, as the north ridge can be climbed in four pitches, but from the west (which gives access to the south face) the peak starts far lower. The upper headwall on the unclimbed south face of de la S forms a tidal-wave-like feature, vertical to overhanging on every pitch.

On the morning of February 11 I took the first block: four or five 70m pitches up the perfect splitter buttress. Starting with good moderate pitches, mostly 5.10 and maybe a 5.9,I reached a techy thin 5.12a face and crack pitch. This led me directly into a thin, mossy corner with sparse gear and ledge-fall potential. I aided it (A2), but if the crack was cleaned it would probably be 5.12b or c. Crystal then led a splitter 5.11 that gained the ridge, joining The Thaw’s not Houlding Wright (1,300m, 5.10, Houlding-Thaw-Wright, 2004) for two pitches, to the ledge system below the tidal wave feature.

We struggled to find continuous free systems on the south face and were close to giving up, when Crystal eyed a wonderful dihedral. She led a 90m simul-climb through this corner to reach the burly portion of the headwall, where she did amazing onsights. The burliest was a continuous, slightly overhanging wide crack (#4 Camalots) that Crystal onsighted at 5.12-

Our situation was beginning to deteriorate, despite the good climbing. Darkness approached, and the good weather started to close. Rapping the overhanging headwall with our small rack was not a pleasant thought. I took over the lead, and began French-freeing through overhanging rotten chimneys and pouring-wet crack systems. Melting snow from the summit slopes drips like rain through the upper roofs. Soon I found myself soaked and shivering violently, as I’d left my shell in the pack. It seemed that every pitch we thought would get us up would yield another soaking pitch.

We kept pushing through the night, and I finally climbed past the last roof and onto the summit slopes. It was still dark and, freezing in a cold wind, we attempted to find shelter until daylight but could not find relief from the wind. In deteriorating weather we began climbing for the true summit at dawn. We reached the summit only to realize that one of Crystal’s boots had come unclipped from her harness and fallen off during her lead. The storm was now in full force. She rapped back down and found it at the base of the last pitch.

Our descent was a nightmare; I will never forget the fury of the Patagonian winds. We only had four pitches to descend to reach the snow gully that would lead back to camp, but we were being literally blown off our feet, even when rappelling, and could hardly move down the face. On our first rappel our rope became desperately stuck and took us several hours to retrieve, possibly due to our exhaustion. We began downclimbing, then tried rappelling again, but our rope became too stuck to retrieve (several days later we retrieved it), and climbing up was not an option. Luckily we had enough rope to fix to get us to a ledge and the snow slopes below. The hardest part was now behind us as we stumbled down the gully to our base camp, reaching it 34 hours after leaving, thirsty, hungry, and happy to be alive. We ate chocolates, soup, and cheese, happy as clams to have pulled it off. The Art of War (1,000m, V 5.12- A2).

Ryan Nelson, AAC