It was Stuart McAleese and my 15th day climbing on the face. The December winds regularly gusted 100mph. The climbing, 800m above the glacier, was becoming markedly easier. Our summit was tantalizingly close. One good day and only 300m of 35° snow led to the summit, and a month’s hard effort would be worth it.
Stuart clipped into the top belay and looked down. The weather had worsened. It was time to bail to our bivy 500m below. As we descended, the funneled winds between the South Tower (Torre Sur) and Paine Chico gusted to 150mph. We hung like puppets, swinging horizontally in the gusts. During the short respite between gusts, rappelling was only possible by pulling ourselves down the iced-up ropes. Every two minutes our eyelashes would weld together. Breathing into the wind was difficult, we had to look away. Finally we reached the bottom of our ropes, 100m from our bivy kit. A simple snow climb now was a terrifying crawl. Eventually we swung off our anchors inside a bag of Gore-Tex, covered in snow; we now knew we would survive. The southeast face of the South Tower of Paine is still unclimbed. The kilometer-wide and at least kilometer-high wall has no obvious linking lines leading to the summit. A 200m grey belt of compact granite halfway up the face truncates cracks. Our chosen line wandered up the right-hand side of the face, left of the excellent Canadian route Hoth. It linked hanging grooves and cracks, providing hard aid, mostly on hooks. During our climb (800m, E2 A3+) we encountered only eight hours of good weather in four weeks. It was constantly windy and often snowing. We resigned ourselves to aid climbing, as exposing flesh and wearing rock boots would bring certain frostbite. Every day on the face we clad ourselves in every stitch of clothing we had. It was like Scotland in winter, we kept repeating, so we had to keep going!
Climbing capsule-style, we had stretched our ropes 600m up from our bivy, 200m above the glacier. Our climbing equipment remained high above. Stuck in our bivy we had no choice but to wait for four days during a massive storm. The fifth day was our last chance to descend; otherwise we would miss our flights home. We had no choice but to battle back up to our kit at the top of the lines, rescue sufficient gear and ropes, and make our escape. (We ended up leaving 150m of static rope but returned 200m of rope borrowed from local climbers and brought home the rest. We also took out all trash, including rubbish gathered in a full day’s work at Bader Camp.) Descending to a hanging snowpatch I triggered a sizable avalanche. Back on the glacier we waded out to our advanced camp and started home. We had barely survived the mountain and Patagonia weather. We were happy with our efforts but saddened not to summit. The route in perfect weather would go free, but its location generally means cold and wind.
Mike “Twid” Turner, U.K.