Gone with the Wind

Posted on: October 1, 2006

The north face of Cerro Murallon, showing Gone with the Wind (VI 5.13- A2, 1000m, Glowacz-Jasper, 2005). The Ferrari Route (VI 5.10 A2/3 80 degrees, 1500m, Alde-Ferrari-Vitali, 1984) takes the skyline ridge on the left-hand side of the face. The Lost World (V 5.10+ M8, 1100m, Glowacz-Jasper-Fengler, 2003) lies to the right, out of the photo. Stefan Glowacz and Robert Jasper, accompanied by various cameramen, cinematographers and friends, most notably Klaus Fengler, traveled to Cerro Murallon three times before establishing their 2005 route. In 2004 they reached a point some 300 meters from the summit only to be turned back by bad weather. The route was established without bolts, but storms prevented them from stripping 500 meters of fixed rope from the wall at the end of their trip. [Photo] Klaus Fengler

November 2005

Only a few hundred meters remained to the beginning of Cerro Murallon's north face, yet as the snow reached my hips, it seemed unattainably far away. Seracs broke from Cerro Don Bosco, on the other side of the valley, with a deafening thunder. An avalanche cone had formed under a couloir only a few meters to the right of us; ice blocks, large as houses, lay within it. Only once we'd begun climbing the wall would we be out of their path. A glacier belt closed the end of the valley; behind it the Continental Icecap stretched into tattered fjords. Ever since our five Argentine friends had left us at base camp one week ago, my climbing partner, Robert Jasper, and I had seen no other people, no living creatures, no plants, no flowers, no trees. Klaus Fengler and Hans Martin Gotz were to join us in three weeks, but that was hardly any consolation now. I was haunted by the thought of what would happen if one of us got hit by icefall and the other had to perform a rescue, alone. The nearest trace of civilization, the Estancia Christina, lay forty kilometers behind us—a distance we'd covered laboriously, stumbling over boulders, sinking into the ankle-deep sand of the moraines, struggling around the crevasses of the Upsala Glacier to reach a place not meant for humans.

We'd come to this end of the world of our own free will, for the third consecutive year. If we failed again, we'd return as many times as it took. The hazardous and exhausting approach, the solitude and the technical difficulty had turned this mountain into the symbol of all our desires.

Every climber dreams of the perfect wall. This was ours.

December 2002: Interlaken, Switzerland

It's hard to believe there was a time before our dream. I was talking with Robert in his kitchen, ascending summits that existed merely in our fantasies. A fire crackled in the fireplace, yet the cold winter air still found its way through cracks in the windows and made the candle on the table flicker restlessly. I felt happy and comfortable sitting there, philosophizing about ideal moments, dangerous adventures and legendary places.

Glowacz and Jasper on the Continental Icecap in 2003. Because of the mountainís remoteness, their journeys combined the rigors of a polar expedition with the technical difficulties of an alpine big wall. On this attempt, in 2004, they carried their equipment from the Paso Marconi, in the north, across the Continental Icecap, an approach route that left them dangerously exposed to bad weather. During their successful attempt, the next year, they would approach from the Estancia Christina, to the south, choosing the hazards of the Upsala Glacierís crevasses instead. [Photo] Klaus Fengler

Our world is losing its secrets. With the increasing ease of travel, every point on the earth seems attainable. All the well-known summits have already been reached—or will be in the near future. We no longer live in the time of Roald Amundsen or Robert Scott; it's up to us to create our own definitions of adventure. By renouncing motorized means of transportation, our generation—and the young climbers who follow us—can once again become discoverers. There are still mountains and faces that have never been photographed or described—ones that only take form in the imagination.

As a climber, I seek out unfamiliar and uncertain circumstances through which I can experience parts of myself I didn't know existed. Robert has never shared his deeper motivations with me, although I guessed we had much in common: both of us have trouble following others. Ten years ago, we couldn't have listened to each other's opinions as much as we did now; but age and experience made us slightly more patient, and we searched for an objective that would appeal to us both. As we leafed through The American Alpine Journal, each time Robert saw pictures of ice and snow-covered walls with only a few flecks of rock, his eyes gleamed. Such photos made the back of my neck tingle. I preferred straightforward rock faces, but I gradually resigned myself to an alpine objective.

Then it appeared in my hands: a picture of a bivy site from a 1960s Argentine expedition. In the background rose the north face of Cerro Murallon—the "forgotten wall." The image seemed to have materialized out of our dreams: a giant, protruding pillar with an overhang at least 500 meters up; then what looked like a short scramble, followed by another upswing, at least 500 meters higher—an enormous, cresting wave, frozen into stone.

"Look at the ice finish on this wall," Robert said, delighted. He and I had both been on Cerro Torre (I'd spent a month there for Werner Herzog's film Scream of Stone); we knew about the region's storms and winds. However, we had never seen anything so surreal and so beautiful.

Today, I can't remember what intrigued us more, the old photograph or the words of the great Casimiro Ferrari: "If Cerro Torre is the mountain that left its deepest mark on me and if Fitz Roy was technically the hardest, then Murallon was the peak that put my mental and physical powers to the toughest test." Ferrari had had to make four separate expeditions between 1979 and 1984, first to reconnoiter an approach, then, finally, to climb the great northeast pillar, the first route on the north side. Only one expedition, led by the indefatigable Brit, Eric Shipton, may have been successful before his.* In January 1961 Shipton, with Jack Ewer, Eduardo Garcia and Cedomir Marangunic, reached the summit plateau from the northwest—perhaps the mountain's easiest line. Murallon's summit is a kilometer-long plateau with small protuberances, though, and the weather conditions were terrible; it remains uncertain whether the team really climbed the highest point.

I should have felt threatened by such an inhospitable place; instead, it filled me with curiosity.

There were times when I would curse that emotion: for example, in 2004, when a giant avalanche swept over the approach, just missing us. But even in 2005, as I waded through the same danger zone, beneath the exhaustion and fear, I felt only gratitude that our dream was real, and that we might, this time, have the chance to live it out.

November 2003

Instead of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy's crowded base camp and El Chalten's nearby shops and restaurants, on our journey to Cerro Murallon, we found only emptiness and cold. Robert and I, with photographer Klaus Fengler and cameraman Sebastien Tischler, had to make three journeys back and forth, ferrying equipment between the Estancia Christina and our base-camp site. We could use sleds for two kilometers on the Upsala Glacier; otherwise, we had to carry everything on our backs.

A plane or a helicopter could have dropped us at the base of the wall. Yet alpinism is not just about getting higher, faster and farther on more difficult routes, or about putting up the twentieth line on Trango Tower; there's also the creativity and the ethic of the approach. In the past, my friends and I had kayaked for 100 kilometers and trekked for fifty to climb a wall in Greenland; we'd used an inflatable canoe and our own feet to reach Mt. Harrison Smith, in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, where we completed a first ascent 350 kilometers away from the last point of civilization; we'd navigated a fourteen-foot yacht around Antarctic icebergs to make a first ascent of Renard Tower's north face; and kayaked, again, to open a route on Polar Bear Spire on Baffin Island. All of these we did without even airdrops. Robert and I were determined to make this expedition in the same style.

This would be our first long route together. We spent much of the approach testing each other, arguing over who broke trail and trying out various provocative statements. Although I knew Robert didn't want to use bolts any more than I did, I taunted him, "Why shouldn't we use some bolts on the belays?"

He tried to explain to me, very carefully and politely, that we'd already decided not to.

"But maybe just one little bolt at each belay—what do you think?"

Robert began to look a little nervous. "I don't want to use any bolts. Not even one."

"OK, OK, Robert, don't get angry. I was just joking."

"You bastard!" he laughed.

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