At the end of 1993, after spending much of the year in Peru, I travelled to Argentina and spent a month in Buenos Aires with my friends Michael and Elspeth Collie. They were living there on a church posting, and generously put me up in their small flat. After a memorable Christmas, full of warm hospitality from members of Buenos Aires’s English-speaking Anglican community, we made plans to head south. Mike and I had long wanted to try to climb Cerro FitzRoy. It had not had many ascents back then, and none by an Australian. The biggest thing we had climbed together was the south-east face of Frenchmans Cap, in Tasmania, by a couple of classic routes, a few summers before – but neither of them took more than a day. The easiest route up FitzRoy was at least twice as long and a whole lot more serious. Given our lack of experience of climbing of this kind – especially mine – it was optimistic, to say the least, to think we might pull it off. But it promised an adventure.
After a long bus journey over several days, via Río Gallegos and Calafate, we walked in from the township of Chaltén to a climbers’ camp by the Río Blanco. There we set ourselves up among a sprinkling of tents in the forest of lenga, or southern beech (Nothofagus pumilio). Most of the tents, as well as four rough huts made of tree trunks and sheets of plastic, were empty. Their occupants were out climbing in the perfect weather. But Mike was not there. We had left him behind in Buenos Aires, and I had come with Elspeth and Adriana, an Argentine colleague and friend of the Collies. Mike had to work until the end of the month, when he would join us with the last of our gear. With no climbing boots or helmet and no climbing partner, the nine-day spell of stable weather that now began was a mixed blessing. We went on some wonderful walks and swam in glacier-fed lakes. I scrambled up Cerro Madsen, a small peak with a great view of the FitzRoy cirque, to survey the terrain, take photographs and burn off some energy.
FitzRoy (3441 metres) and its neighbours from Cerro Madsen. The steep-sided peak second from the left is Aguja Poincenot (3002 metres) and the low notch in the ridge between Poincenot and FitzRoy is the Brecha de los Italianos.
The day we calculated Mike should arrive, we walked to Chaltén to meet him and help to ferry the gear he was bringing, but he didn’t show up. This was before mobile phones, so we had no idea why. The following day, to make the most of the continuing fine weather, we walked over to Bridwell camp, another climbers’ camp among the moraines of Lago Torre, and gazed up at Cerro Torre’s incredible spire. It was eight o’clock when we got back to Río Blanco to find Mike there. Because the connecting bus from Comodoro Rivadavia to Río Gallegos did not run on New Year’s Eve, he had had an unplanned day’s stopover in Comodoro. He was sunburnt, and tired from the four-day journey, but eager to go.
By one a.m. most of our climbing equipment was packed, along with basic food for four days. After a couple of hours’ sleep, the two of us rose in the dark and left. Our aim was to climb the Franco-Argentine route on FitzRoy’s south-east spur, a variation on the original French route from 1952.
This first attempt was saved from disaster only because we recognised failure before it came crashing down on us. The first night, we made an unplanned and uncomfortable bivouac on a small ledge before the technical climbing even began. The following morning, two pairs of German climbers came past. Apprenticed in the European Alps, they moved fast and made it look easy. By comparison, we were slow and carried much more gear. Nevertheless, we pushed on.
I had never known Mike to admit defeat, but even he observed that there are some things you cannot achieve through willpower alone. We took a good look around at our spectacular surroundings in case we should never come back, and began to descend. After eight rappels with heavy packs, a weary plod across the sun-softened glacier and a final slippery traverse into Paso Superior, we spent a night in the dripping remains of a snow cave. Then we continued on down to Río Blanco.
Back in the beech forest, we both agreed to rest for a few days. For one thing, my fingertips were cracked and excruciatingly sore from climbing on the cold granite. Then, the day after we came down, the spell of fine weather ended. At about ten the following morning, one of the fast Germans we had spoken to below the Brecha stumbled into camp alone.
The storm had transformed the couloir below the Brecha into a waterfall and turned their retreat into a desperate struggle. Affected by hypothermia, they had got into trouble on the last abseil to the glacier. His climbing partner was dead, still there on the end of their ropes, and he himself had had an epic escape from the bergschrund – the crevasse at the glacier’s upper edge. Another strong group of German climbers took him into their care and began the complicated process of retrieving the body of his friend. It seemed as much our problem as theirs, so we offered help and settled down with the rest of the camp to wait for the weather to improve.
At the same time we wondered what had become a pair of U.S. climbers who had been on their way up to try the Californian route on the south-west spur as we were coming down. Later that night, a number of people were gathered in the hut that everyone referred to as the Chalet Suiza, or Swiss Chalet. This was where a Swiss/Czech pair, Beat and Michal, had set up living quarters during ‘down time’ while they worked on a hard new route on the neighbouring peak of Aguja Poincenot.
I did my best to follow a conversation in German. Two local climbers had also been going up, on a lightweight dash that had begun in Chaltén, as we came down. They had climbed four pitches of the Franco-Argentine route before the weather forced them to turn around. Rappelling was difficult in the fearsome wind. Ropes jammed and had to be cut free, and by the time they were off the technical climbing, they had just 15 metres of rope left. Roped together, they had fallen from the snow arête at the foot of the route, high up on the ridge, and had gone a long way.
One of them was now down in camp. He had got his friend into a bivvy bag but had had to leave him, terribly injured if not already dead, exposed to the weather on the far side of the Brecha. Wet through and alone, he had downclimbed what had taken us hours to rappel, then crossed one glacier and descended another. But his friend was dead, or surely must be by morning. No one knew what had become of the two Americans. As we retired to our tents, the wind roared through the dense canopy of lenga over our heads.
It was nearly a week before calm returned to camp. The two Americans, shaken but otherwise okay, descended out of the continuing storm the next day and walked down with a party who had gone up to look for them. After a few days of enforced rest, we joined an attempt to bring the German climber’s body down from the mountain. We set off one morning with Michal and Beat to meet the other Germans, who had gone up earlier and were bringing him down to Paso Superior. We were to help with the lower part of the journey. By the time we had got halfway up Glaciar de los Tres, blasting winds laden with ice crystals were forcing us to brace against the glacier with our ice axes to stay on our feet. Our companions were Patagonia veterans. Beat put the situation in perspective.
‘Two people are dead. It’s enough. We go down.’
We returned to camp and the Germans were not far behind us. They had got their compatriot’s body as far as Paso Superior, and from there he would be taken out by helicopter when the weather improved.
The day had turned wet and windy again, and it looked as though the camp would be all but abandoned that night in favour of the village of Chaltén. It was 20 years to the day since the first undisputed ascent of Cerro Torre, and word had got about that a member of the original team, Casimiro Ferrari, was putting on an asado – a barbecue in the Argentine style. He had come down for the occasion from his camp on the glacier below the east face of Aguja Mermoz, and climbers would be converging on Chaltén from all corners of the park. When fellow Australians John Fantini and Simon Parsons, whom Mike knew a little, appeared out of the rain on a visit from Bridwell camp, we plied them with a hot lunch and persuaded them to join us. The asado was quite an event, but we woke on the floor of a Chaltén cafe the next morning to a still, cloudless sky. This was perfect climbing weather, and we were not on the hill. John and Simon high-tailed it towards Cerro Torre. We bought fresh bread and made our way back to a deserted Río Blanco camp. It was time to try again.
Fitter and less heavily laden, we left the next morning and were at Paso Superior in time for lunch. I fancied an afternoon renovating a snow cave, and a comfortable night in a sleeping-bag, but Mike rightly insisted that the day was too good to waste. We left sleeping-bags, ice screws and some food behind, and pushed on. The snow on the upper section of Glaciar Piedras Blancas was quite firm, and with the afternoon still young we were again looking at the bergschrund below the Brecha. On our first try, the heat of the day had loosened all the refuse in the couloir above, and slush was spewing from black chutes in the icy slope. This time all was quiet, frozen. In a tangle in the middle of the wall hung the two Germans’ abandoned ropes. On the right, five metres above us, was a more recently fixed rope. After a steep thrash up to reach it and on through the snow left by the recent storm, we made quick progress up the edge of the snowfield. I began to feel the exhilaration of moving fast and efficiently. We would be past the Brecha and at the base of the route before dark ...
The trickiest section of the couloir below the Brecha is a bulge where the snowfield narrows to nothing. Above the bulge is easier ground. I was considering whether to go straight up or across to rock on the left side when voices from above heralded a shower of dirty, sloughed-off snow. Ropes came down, and then a rappelling figure. Whichever path I chose was now blocked. I recognised the climber in my way as the owner of the café where we had slept after Ferrari’s asado.
‘Alberto! We’re the australianos who slept on your floor the other night. Have you been climbing something?’
‘No, a friend died up there and we were moving him out of the way where no one will stumble across him. We won’t be long. You don’t mind, do you?’
Of course. I waited. The second member of the unlucky pair came down, then someone else whom I didn’t recognise. All three occupied a small stance and began to renovate a rappel anchor. My route across onto rock – the better option – was still blocked. So instead I climbed straight up and reached across to attach an ascender to a fixed rope we had used the time before. Suddenly I found myself flying, past the three Argentines, into the chute that funnels trash down the snowfield and into space above the
bergschrund. I knew I had recently placed a runner, and Mike is as reliable a belayer as you could wish for. Sure enough, the rope pulled tight and my ride came to a reasonably gentle halt. Upside-down but intact, with my ice axe and hammer still attached by their wrist-loops, I looked up. What had happened? A crampon, dangling by its ankle-strap, answered my question. It had twisted off the worn toe of my boot as I reached for the fixed rope – a rookie error. More embarrassed than injured, I righted myself and stepped left onto rock, climbed up past the three figures on the ledge, and was just below the bulge when a fresh wave of icy debris poured over me. More ropes came down. The way was blocked again. Amid showers of gravelly snow, Erich and Markus, an Austrian pair, abseiled past.
Markus pulled a face: ‘Shit Wetter.’
The weather seemed pretty good to us, overcast but still. I asked, ‘Can you still see Cerro Torre?’ In a realm of meteorological anarchy, I had decided this was a worthwhile indicator.
I said nothing. They continued down, pulled their ropes after them, and disappeared. I put the bulge behind me at last and scrambled up until the rope pulled tight. There was a reasonable belay among the clusters of faded nylon webbing that littered the couloir. I tugged on it, backed it up with some more gear and called out to Mike to come up. After a ghastly pitch that had cost us at least an hour, some time on easy rock would warm us up. Mike powered through, also cold after a long wait at the previous belay, and we were moving again. Night was falling as we finally poked our heads over the Brecha de los Italianos. Away to the west was the Adela ridge and Cerro Torre, silhouetted against the last of an orange sunset. The far side of the col was windy, but here, out of the wind, was a bivouac site with room to cook and nearly enough room to stretch out – being careful to avoid an old, freeze-dried turd.
Come sunrise, there was no excuse for sitting in bivvy bags any longer. The day was fine; the wind had dropped. We left behind yet more gear, including the stove and some climbing equipment, and stepped over the Brecha. With a long day behind us, we were still well short of the start of the route, but we had a day-and-a-half’s advantage over our first attempt and were moving further ahead. By nine we were at the foot of the first pitch.
This climbs a feature known as Terray’s crack, so named after Lionel Terray, the Frenchman who had successfully climbed it, with the aid of hand-carved wooden wedges, on the first ascent in 1952. We perched precariously on a 50-degree snow slope as Mike swapped his plastic mountaineering boots for rock-climbing shoes. Up close, the route lost the terror it had held for us from a distance and was reduced to more manageable proportions, one pitch after another. Mike relished being on solid rock at last. The exposure was stupendous, but the higher we got, the more it merged into the wider scene, all crazy perspective, snow, rock and air. Our hopes soared.
This was no jaunt on warm Australian sandstone. Mike’s grade 13 pitch was not difficult on paper but hid an ice-filled chimney being splashed from above with icy water. My pitch, easier still, traversed a wide ledge now covered with slick, sloping snow. I placed a runner, lowered myself out to the lip, where there was some granite showing, and began to tiptoe around, poised above space. My foot slipped slightly on the icy snow and I began to overbalance ever so slowly backwards. I swung an ice hammer. Thunk. Its pick bit into the hard snow. Balance regained.
Another pitch, more straightforward, and we could sit at the base of the open corner known as the Great Dihedral. ‘It’s two pitches of 20 or 21 but there’s a good fixed rope,’ everyone down at Río Blanco had said – meaning we could avoid the hard climbing by ascending the rope. And indeed we could see the rope, but its bottom end dangled 30 metres above us. Mike climbed well, and was soon tugging on the rope to test how secure it was. Satisfied, he attached an ascender and swarmed on up to a hanging belay. With only one ascender and the heavier of the two packs, I cursed my lack of jumaring experience. (Jumaring, named after a particular type of ascending device, is the process of ascending a fixed rope by using one or more of these devices. A climber slides the device up the rope and it is then prevented by a spring-loaded cam from sliding down. Ideally, there are two Jumars, or ascenders, each with a webbing loop attached that the climber stands in, but the technique can be adapted to the circumstances. We only had one pair of ascenders between us.) The corner steepened and I panted to a halt. Finally Mike lowered the second ascender and I struggled up to dangle beside him. The widening crack above was my lead. Our modest rack of gear and my limited repertoire of the necessary skills got me to a series of small, sloping ledges.
Up to the ledges came three Argentines who had started that day from Paso Superior, then Mike, lugging the heavy pack. It was getting late, but there was nowhere obvious to stop, so Mike set off up the broken corner above in pursuit of the first of the Argentine party. As the darkness intensified and the ropes, now crunchy from the cold, fed out only slowly, I looked around for a bivouac site. There was a narrow ledge with a thick covering of ice that might shape up at a pinch so, when Mike called down to enquire, I told him yes, there was somewhere we could spend the night. Down he came, and so did the three Argentines. We all agreed to share the ledge and set to work to make it safe and livable. It wasn’t great but, with some ice hacked off and consigned to the void, it would do. We attached ourselves securely to the rock and settled in. Mike and I, each in a bivvy bag and with plastic boot shells to pull on over our rock shoes, were not too cold, though Mike had nowhere to rest his feet and was constantly slipping towards the edge. Our companions, Gastón, Guillermo and Martín, wore thin rock shoes, and all huddled under one, less effective cover.
‘¡Qué frío! It’s so cold!’ This and the chattering of their teeth was about all we heard from them until morning – though I remember Guillermo pulling out a small transistor radio to listen to a staticky mountain weather report.
Sunrise was a long time coming. While we sat gazing to the east for the first spark of gold, thin cloud was oozing in over Aguja Poincenot away to our right, then off to the left as well. It was above us when we looked up, blurring outlines and moving fast. From our sheltered spot we could not tell how strong the wind was. We discussed the situation. Between us we had four 50-metre ropes, and when the time came we would be able to descend quickly by knotting them together in two pairs and rappelling on each pair in turn. We could start down now or we could join forces and continue climbing – push our luck a little.
‘Let’s go up.’
‘Let’s go down.’
Indecision reigned. Gastón had already jumared the previous night’s pitch to retrieve the ropes.
‘What’s it like?’ someone yelled up.
‘Más viento. More wind,’ came the reply.
‘Leave the ropes! We’re coming up.’
The decision was made. Mike and I combined what little food and water we had left in a pack, grabbed a camera and a spare roll of film, and secured everything else to the ledge. We made a hasty plan. One of the Argentines would lead and fix two ropes for everyone else to ascend. One pitch passed in this way, then another. At each belay there was a similar conversation.
‘It’s so cold. It’s getting worse. Let’s go down.’
‘Just one more.’
I jumared up to a stance below a big ledge. Above, a pitch or two away, was an overhang blocking the way to the snow slopes above. Once past that, it would be a steep walk to the summit. We were now looking down on Aguja Poincenot to our left. It was less elegant from this angle, its northern aspect all big cracks. Beyond it was Glaciar Viedma, a huge concertina of blueish ice. And then the Hielo Sur, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, vast and white. Cloud came and went – above, below and on all sides, blowing in fast from the west. Martín had led out another pitch; there could be no more than two to go after that. But time was passing and bad weather was clearly coming. It was very windy above us, and it was cold. We took some photos: this might be our high point.
Gastón was agitated: ‘Get going! We’re freezing.’
With four ropes we could indeed descend relatively quickly, but we had a long way to go – 20 rappels, give or take, to the bergschrund. After each rappel we retrieved the pair of ropes we had just come down on, making sure to pull on the right one to avoid jamming the knot in the belay above, then carried them down as we abseiled on the other pair, and set them up again. There were rappels from just one old piton that might have been there for decades. Ropes twanged under tension and rubbed over granite edges.
As I set off down the lower part of the Great Dihedral, the other four all dangled above me from a single camming device and I heard Mike say, ‘They’re not that strong, you know.’ The route was not perfectly vertical, and it took an effort to follow the right line and not to swing off to one side – more so for whoever was carrying the second pair of ropes. This was nearly always Gastón; he was the last one down, the one who tidied up. Nearing the last belay above the snow arête, he lost the fight with the double fall-line and swung like a pendulum, out over the glacier an unthinkable distance below. He swung back, struggled onto the ledge and remarked in faultless English, ‘Terrifying!’ We rewound all the progress of the previous two days. Down the snow arête. Down the ridge to the Brecha. Viewed from the Brecha, Cerro Torre was now engulfed in a dark mass of cloud that crashed over it with a roar, like a monstrous wave, and put an end to any second thoughts. We reached familiar ground in the couloir, then the last rope’s length to the glacier.
‘¡Ché! You’re down. You can take your helmet off.’
It was nine o’clock. Our three new friends lurched off down the glacier towards Paso Superior, plunging thigh-deep in the soft snow. We followed more slowly. There was not much light left when we reached the pass, and the snow caves were in a sorry state, so, with silent apologies to Michal and Beat, we moved into the vacant ‘Swiss bivvy’. Elevated, level and dry, it seemed like a palace, but even there we were partly exposed to the wind. Our priorities were clear: get the stove going to melt some snow, drink, eat, then get the gear under cover. Laboriously, we did what had to be done, then, already half asleep, stretched out in sleeping-bags. The wind was bringing in rain, but the next priority was sleep.
I wondered during the night whether any of our gear was blowing away, but in the morning it all still seemed to be there. It was snowing, though – thick and wet, blasting across the pass into our faces as we surveyed the way down. If we stayed where we were, we would only get wetter. We made hot drinks and ate, then ate some more. A cry from below announced that Gastón, Guillermo and Martín were making tracks, and we made a date for lunch at their camp in the forest in a few days’ time. We would later learn that their snow cave had collapsed during the night and they were much wetter than we were. We got up and packed. This time we would not leave anything behind. Mike’s fingers were cracked and painful and he was not functioning at his best. He swore as he opened the back of the camera without rewinding the film, then slammed it shut. Would we have any photos of our high point?
Nearly everything had been faster on this, our second attempt. The descent from Paso Superior was the exception. It was impossible to move with confidence on steep slopes of fresh snow over wet granite smeared with mud and gravel. But wet rock and snow eventually gave way to drier rock, then a muddy track, and at last there was the Chalet Suiza on the edge of the beech forest. Beat and Michal sat comfortably by the fire. They greeted us with big smiles, questions in broken English and cups of sweet tea fortified with whisky. One of them took some photos. We were down again.
In ten days’ time we had to be on a bus, the first leg in the long journey back to Buenos Aires and, in my case, Australia. We had lunch with the three muchachos at their idyllic camp by Lago Capri, and marvelled at one of their tents, full of food while ours were beginning to run out. Armed with cameras, we slept out on a ridge close to camp with a grand view of FitzRoy and its satellites, but we were a day too late for the photogenic sunrise and sunset we hoped for. After four days of rest, the weather looked good again. There was no knowing how long it might last. Markus and Erich, the two Austrians who had been deterred by the weather the time we nearly got up, now lamented a lost opportunity. They had charted barometric pressure several times a day since their arrival, but its lunatic ups and downs were driving them crazy. We were still tired and both, especially Mike, had sore hands, but we set off the following morning feeling strong for one last try.
Two days later we were back down. All had gone well at first. The snow was firm and we made good time to the bergschrund. There we caught up with two Slovenian guys, Boris and Vlado, and saw an opportunity to get ahead by offering to fix their rope on the first pitch in the couloir. Moto, a lone Japanese climber with solo aspirations on the Californian route, panted up behind and joined the queue. The climbing to the Brecha went smoothly except for some congestion at the bulge, where Markus and Erich, moving fast with the ease gained through years in their native Alps, stamped on by at an inopportune moment. At the Brecha it was already windy. Boris and Vlado opted for the sheltered bivvy. Moto was soon a tiny figure against a backdrop of shattered granite as he went on unroped. After ten hours without food or water, I followed mechanically as Mike led two easy pitches, then stumbled up a rocky shoulder to the foot of the snow arête, where we knew there was a good bivouac site. But Markus and Erich had got there first.
We needed some shelter. The sun was setting behind Cerro Torre as Mike began to build another wall, scrabbling at the frozen ground to move rocks around, while I fumbled in my pack for food. I wolfed down something sweet and began to help him but already, bloodied fingers protruding from his tattered gloves were leaving red splotches on the granite. The first site was no good, but the second attempt produced a low wall and an area where we could stretch out, curled either side of one rock that simply would not budge. The wind made the rules as we struggled to protect the stove, keep finely ground granite out of the food, and stay warm. We ate, then zipped up our bivvy bags and contemplated the overwhelming noise of the wind. All night, the fabric of the bags cracked like whips against the background roar. It was cold, too, but the noise alone would have made it all but impossible to sleep.
By dawn we were looking to the east again, waiting for our cue to go down. The sky lightened but there was no sun to warm the air; the horizon was grey. The wind had increased still more and we could barely keep our feet as we scrambled down the shoulder. With great care we set up the first rappel. Rather than throw the ropes into the wind, I lowered Mike from the belay. This trick, which we had picked up from two of the Germans, kept the ropes under tension and minimised the risk of getting them tangled. The wind tossed him about until he dropped below the line of the ridge, where suddenly all was relatively calm. With the ropes now safely in place, I abseiled down to his little ledge in the couloir, once so threatening, now sheltered and familiar. The lowering routine worked well, but it gave me a good look at the state of our ropes. I held my breath every time one obviously worn patch passed through the belay device, but figured it would hold for a few more pitches. The snow on the glacier was firm underfoot and we could look around, admiring the incredible mountain architecture as we put it behind us for the last time. Paso Superior was windy but bathed in sun when we arrived, but cloud soon began to swirl around FitzRoy and blot out the view. An hour or so later, as we left, it was beginning to snow.
We spent the next few days carrying loads out to Chaltén and saying goodbye. It had been raining for two days and the rivers were high as we hurried along the track towards Chaltén to meet our bus. Mike and Elspeth had to resume their busy lives in Buenos Aires, and for me this was the start of the long trip home to Melbourne. Mike would be back within a few years on another climbing trip, and I would return ten years later, to walk this time rather than climb, but for now it was farewell to Patagonia.
We move on. A few weeks after I got back to Melbourne, I showed some slides from the trip one evening to a group of friends. My housemate Theo, who was studying for a PhD on spiders that eat their mothers, brought along an extra guest on the back of his motorcycle – a young woman named Ely, who was doing her PhD, on a mountain shrimp from Tasmania, in a neighbouring lab. Not long after this, Ely and I started seeing each other, and one thing led to another. In April 1995, we were married. The footloose adventurer slipped quietly into the background, and someone else took his place.
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