Mermoz (2,723m) Northwest Ridge, to Fitz Roy (3,405m), North Pillar, Link-up

South America, Argentina, Southern Patagonia, Chalten Massif
Author: Scott Bennett. Climb Year: 2012. Publication Year: 2012.

I opened my eyes to see the wall above us glowing in frozen predawn. Cheyne and I had laid down at our cramped bivouac a few short hours before, sharing one sleeping bag as a blanket and huddling on a pile of ropes, packs, and squares of foam pad. Only 300m of Fitz Roy remained, but our route stretched 1,700m below and a year into the past.

Coming back to Patagonia for a second season, I had one objective, Fitz Roy. The biggest mountain hereabouts, King Fitz dominates its satellite peaks. So while climbing on Agujas Guillaumet, Mermoz, and others is a fun experience on beautiful rock, no alpinist can help but dream of touching Fitz Roy’s summit.

Last year, with Blake Herrington on Cerro Pollone, we could view the entire Fitz Roy massif from the west. From that perspective one line jumped out as the obvious line of strength: a link-up of the northwest ridge of Mermoz with the north (Goretta) pillar of Fitz. I was convinced this was the route to attempt, perhaps one of the last remaining unclimbed lines in the group.

Leaving El Chalten on January 18, 2012, with perfect weather forecast, Cheyne Lempe and I crossed Paso Cuadrado the following morning and, via the North Fitz Roy Glacier, reached the base of Mermoz’s northwest ridge. Starting up a major weakness, I eventually used a pendulum and aid to gain the ridge crest, after which we enjoyed many exposed pitches on good rock We simuled and soloed on the easy ground and pitched the many steep steps and towers, reaching a nice ledge for our first bivouac.

The second day dawned clear, as it did throughout the climb. The crest steepened above and didn’t seem to offer climbable features, so we poked around to the left and found leaning cracks on the north flank. Another half-day of enjoyable, occasionally difficult, ridge climbing brought us to the junction with the main ridge of the Fitz Roy massif. We turned south, following the Care Bear Traverse. We picked a path around little gendarmes, then bypassed Aguja Val Biois on its steep west face. We made our second bivouac just below the Goretta pillar.

On day three I started up perfect splitters in a T-shirt, reveling in the morning sun, but we soon turned a corner into the shade, and I was slowed by wet, icy cracks. Halfway up the pillar Cheyne took the lead and made a diagonal rappel left onto the Casarotto Route, where he battled up wide, wet cracks. This was our longest climbing day; it wasn’t until after midnight that we reached the top of the pillar and bivouacked.

The wall above glowing orange, wed put ourselves in position for success. With 1,700m of climbing below us, and a year of planning and dreaming, we were within striking distance of the summit. However, the icy headwall looked intimidating. Cheyne, having more experience with mixed climbing, changed to boots and crampons, grabbed our tools, and started up. Kicking into brittle ice, he sent showers onto my belay A few moments of hesitation preceded each move, as he made sure to find solid pick placements in the poor ice. He soon discovered a passage to the right, off the ice and onto rock, and we were back in business.

I led two more long pitches on perfect granite, and soon we gained the final snowfield. After scrambling to the summit, Cheyne and I stood silently, giving thanks for the opportunities, daydreams, and hard work that brought us to the summit of King Fitz.

The North Pillar Sitz Start had free-climbing up to 5.11, with numerous points of aid, pendulums, and rappels. The elevation gain is nearly 2,000m, though with rappels and downclimbing the total gain may be 300m more. We avoided the summits of Mermoz and Val Biois. We descended the Franco-Argentinean Route and, after a final bivouac at Lago de los Tres, reached Chalten on the morning of the 23rd.

Cheyne Lempe, 21, thanks the AAC for a generous Mountain Fellowship grant.

Scott Bennett, AAC