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Bird's Eye View


When the others joined me, I explained where the next pitch could go, so we could avoid more drilling. Doubtful, but trusting, Steve spent hours figuring out each placement. But for once we weren't thinking about speed. A first ascent is an artistic creation, the only moment when our imagination can work with original stone. It could only be done right once.

As the day began to turn to evening, Steve hollered down, "This was the way to go!"

Cerro Standhardt/Desmochada: January-February 1988

"It looks like vertical and overhanging ice, and I want the first four leads," Jay Smith said; he'd just returned from soloing around the corner to look at the route, while Greg Smith and I cooked.

"Judging by your description," I said, "we won't come to blows over it."


Jay made a small grin. "It will come to blows. It's a funnel and there's no place for you to hide."

I looked over at Greg; the birdlike frame that made him such a talented rock climber suddenly seemed fragile to me. But I was convinced that faith and courage were enough. I had created all the right pictures in my head, and now was the time for them to become real.

"We'll make a place to hide," I said, "by hanging the packs horizontally over our heads."

"We'll find out tomorrow," Jay said.

Copperheads after a particularly exciting pitch during the first ascent of The Big Chill (VI 5.9 A4) in 1988. The route, on the right side of Half Dome, was the first to employ the PDH ("Pretty Damn Hard") and NSB ("Not So Bad") ratings—a response to local debate about the possibility of A5. [Photo] Jim Bridwell collection

The three of us were bivying on the col of Cerro Standhardt, the last of the three Torres to remain unclimbed. The routes up the other two, Cerro Torre and Torre Egger, had been opened siege style, with fixed ropes; we wanted to go for an alpine-style first ascent. We all knew that in Patagonia such an objective could mean putting everything on the line.

At dawn after a hasty brew up, we were off. Jay, one of the best ice climbers in North America, got his requested leads. An elevator shaft twisted above us; at the back, a narrow wall of ice bulged and curved like a carnival mirror, letting us see only fragments of what lay ahead. What was hidden remained terrifying.

"It must be all free," Jay shouted—his war cry.

At the top of the first pitch of eighty-five-degree ice, the three of us crowded into a two-foot slot, knocking into each other as we arranged the pack over our heads. Jay began again up the glassy surface, his arms growing tense with effort.

"Ice," he yelled, the word we'd all been dreading. A serving-platter-sized piece hit me as I tried to duck under the packs, but I was only bruised.

Jay struggled to place a screw, his crampons skittering on the thin ice. By the time he set an anchor, he was too exhausted to hold the tools. Greg's silence told me it was my lead.

A thirty-foot ice column hung over our heads. Water dripped from curtains and ran behind it. Still shaken from the last icefall, I paused for a moment, wondering what we created and what was merely chance, whether the outcomes of our routes resulted from mere position in time. How much freedom did I really have?

I had no choice, certainly, except to keep going. The soft ice divided into thin runnels between rock ribs; in seconds my boots filled with water. Drips splattered and refroze on my clothes, then crumbled off as I moved. I kept climbing without protection; I couldn't let myself get drenched any longer.

I worked my way carefully around the curtains, disturbing only one hanging icicle, which smashed my camera at the belay. Worn out myself, I fixed the ropes and shivered.

As the shadows lengthened, we raced the sun to the top. Jay took the last pitch. Unable to find protection, he used his body to anchor the rope. Our spirits glowed as deeply as the sky.

Jeff Lowe in 1989 on The Broken Tooth, Alaska Range, Alaska. Lowe attempted the route with Mark Wilford as part of a movie, with Bridwell as the cameraman. The expedition gave Bridwell a chance to scope out the Bear's Tooth (visible in the background), which he had first seen during his ascent of The Mooses Tooth. Bridwell returned to attempt the Bear's Tooth the next year with Peter Mayfield, then tried again in 1991 with Wilford, but was turned back both times by bad weather. In 1999, he returned with Terry Christensen, Glenn Dunmire, Brian Jonas and Brian McCray. The result was the first ascent of The Useless Emotion (VII 5.9 WI4 A4, ca. 4,700'). [Photo] Mark Wilford

On Desmochada I realized, once again, the power of chance. Rockfall missed me by a foot on the approach. I struggled to suppress thoughts of storm. I believed that we could shape some portion of our reality, and that fear was not part of the picture I wanted to make. After three days of climbing, Jay, Glenn Dunmire and I summited on a clear, windy day. The Torres soared above, while below us the glaciers merged into the vastness of the Continental Icecap. Only a single, tiny cloud in sight, just west of the Torres... and with that thought, the wind began to blow more strongly and the cloud grew to consume the entire sky.

At each rappel, I felt as though we were casting our fates into the wind. Do we make our luck or just receive it?

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