Patagonia Part 3 - Fitzroy
Tony Stone and I are on our way back from Patagonia, after a seven week trip. We spent the first few weeks in Torres del Paine (Chile) with Calum Muskett, and you can read about it here. We spent the remainder of our time in El Chalten (Argentina), climbing in the Fitzroy/Cerro Torre massif. You can read about the middle section of our trip here.
In the last week of our trip a short weather window appeared. We agreed it was best to embrace the wintery, mixed conditions in the mountains and opt for a popular and fairly amenable route called the Supercanaleta on Fitzroy. Many friends have climbed it this season (I think only four or five individual routes have been climbed this summer - the Supercan being one of them). Although Patagonia is predominately an incredible rock climbing area, the mixed and ice is still very good; this year’s poor weather and conditions mean mixed climbing is the way to go. The Supercanaleta is described in the excellent Patagonia Vertical guide as ‘1000 metres up an easy snow and ice gully followed by 19 pitches of moderate rock and mixed climbing.’
Tony and I walked in to the base of the West face of Fitzroy on Sunday. I was glad of Tony’s suggestion of bringing a proper mountain tent (a Crux Bunker X3) rather than a standard single skin bivi tent, as it promptly started raining on Sunday afternoon.
On Monday morning we woke to about a foot of fresh snow (as forecast), and this continued throughout the day. It snowed about two or three feet in total, and we repeatedly had to dig out the tent - not ideal without a shovel. The temperatures were warm and we quickly got very wet in the storm.
Monday afternoon cleared (again, as forecast), so we crossed the bergschrund at about 4pm, but quickly found ourselves being hit by lots of falling ice and rime, which was melting from the walls above. Only 50 metres up the couloir, we ran to the side wall and shouted to each other, ‘this is stupid!’ I guess we should’ve known that the walls above would shed their rime/ice/snow as soon as the sun came out, but we were keen to go climbing.
We crashed back into the tent, set the alarms for midnight and tried to sleep. A few hours of dozing later, we geared up beneath a windless, starry night sky. It was very pleasant to be surrounded by towering mountains in calm weather - a rarity on this trip. Our tranquility was shattered when we spotted some fast-moving headtorches heading for our route; ‘quick, there’s someone jumping us!’ We raced past them, crossed the ‘schrund at 1.09am, and soloed the 1000 m couloir.
At 3.09am (I liked the similarity of the times) we geared up at the top of the couloir. Tony led two rocky pitches past the Bloque Empotrado, then I led a long pitch up the ‘80 degree ice step’ and some mixed steps. We had previously benefitted from another party’s tracks, who had left at 5pm the day before (!!!) and had moved - very slowly - up the couloir to the top of the Bloque. We simuled past them, moved right along the ramp, and then Tony led a long pitch to the top of the ridgeline. By this time it was 9.15am and we were psyched to be the top party on the route, and doing well. The final gendarmes were well rimed but I set off, pulled on some cams, smashed a lot of rime ice, and in two pitches took us to the base of the final gendarme. It was funny to think that Scotland (the home of British winter climbing, and strong rime-based ethics) is currently in a heatwave and has no winter, whereas this Patagonian summer feels much more like winter!
Tony led two tricky pitches up the left side of the ‘Yvon Chouinard tower,’ smashing plenty of wild rime ice formations as he went. We climbed in crampons, gloves and with axes all day, and weaved around a bit on this final gendarme. The cracks would’ve been great for hand jams if we’d had good conditions, but Tony still led them relatively quickly.
In two more pitches, we were at the top of the Direct and ditched almost all of our kit. We’d climbed the route in 12 pitches. The rime ice had taken a long time but we walked up the final 200m of easy ground to the summit and arrived at about 2.15pm.
It was amazing to be on top of Fitzroy on a clear, windless day. We had great views of Cerro Torre, the Patagonian ice cap and El Chalten, far below. We also saw how many times we’d walked into the mountains! We could trace the approaches we’d made: Laguna Sucia, Laguna de los Tres and Paso Superior, Piedra Negra, and some way along the Niponino approach. We’ve done a lot of walking on this trip, and bailed from a lot of objectives!
We ate a packet of biscuits on the summit (we’ve got to keep up our British appearances!) and chilled out for a while, before walking back down and rappelling down the Direct. Thankfully, high clouds kept the temperatures relatively cool, but there was still a small waterfall down the ice pitch and some debris fell from above. After about 20 rappels - some of them simul-raps - we overtook the other party who had set off at 5pm the day before and down-climbed over the ‘schrund, reaching our tent at about 7pm.
We packed up and walked, tired but content, over Paso del Cuadrado and down to Piedra Fraile, getting into our sleeping bags at 1am. We went straight to sleep, dreaming of Domo Banco ice creams...
After chatting with Rolo Garibotti later in the week, we spoke about how people (ourselves included) tend to only show our successes, and hide the numerous failures, attempts or hard work involved ‘behind the scenes’ in alpine climbing. I’m certainly guilty of this, and my occasional social media ‘spraying’ might glorify the routes I’ve climbed whilst ignoring the numerous attempts in the mountains. It’s sometimes a bit embarrassing, and I’m constantly struggling to balance my social media activity.
Alpine climbing has a very low success rate - and by success, I mean climbing a route in the mountains, reaching the summit, and returning safely back home. If you define even stricter parameters, such as onsight or free, this rate diminishes even further. The snow, ice and rock conditions change daily in the mountains, which creates a lot of variability and uncertainty. Warm temperatures can dry out the rock, but melt ice. Snowfall can improve couloirs, but make the approaches to some climbs almost impossible.
The weather also plays an equal - or greater - role in the mountains. These giant towers of rock and ice stick up into the atmosphere, catching higher winds and more precipitation. Remember the Water Cycle in Geography class? Air is forced to rise when it hits the mountains; when it rises, it cools, condenses, clouds and... precipitation! ‘Windows’ of good weather appear in the weather forecasts, and we watch them develop, hoping for calm winds, no precipitation and high pressure. The temperatures, freezing levels and cloud cover are also important.
I’ve ‘failed’ in the mountains many, many times. As I mentioned in my last blog post about Patagonia, failure is actually the wrong word - I learn from each experience, reflect and move on. Perhaps a better word is ‘attempted.’ Sometimes I’ve turned around before I’ve even seen the mountain; sometimes it’s been from high on the route.
Tony and I have walked into the mountains five times in the last month - that’s just in Chalten, and excluding our time in Torres del Paine. The 2016/17 summer season in Patagonia has been poor (so far), but we’ve tried and tried and tried. We’ve changed plans, turned around and debated for hours. Sometimes the weather’s been good but we’ve chosen the wrong objective - but this is only known with hindsight. We live and learn. It’s not going to be easy!
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Everybody would climb everything in the mountains if it was easy! It requires perseverance, too much time away from home and endless days of waiting. And that’s not even proper alpine climbing! Read about Jon Griffith’s attempts on Link Sar in Pakistan; read any mountaineering journal and you’ll find stories of months of bad weather and attempts. As Colin Haley showed on his Alpinist Instagram takeover, ‘there’s no shame in failure.’ Maybe that’s a little of what’s required for our alpine world. We can celebrate the ‘close, but no cigar’ attempts and the ‘epic fails.’ We can humanize the heroes a bit. This could reinforce the importance of a solid base of climbing experience before we venture into the mountains. It could ensure we progress slowly, steadily and carefully, not jumping straight into the deep end. After all, we go into the mountains to enjoy ourselves.
Thanks for a great trip, Tony.
Thanks to everyone in Chalten - you’re all wads :)
Special thanks to Rolo for helping us out - legend.