Alison Kruetzen nearing the top of the Central Tower of Paine (2460m), Patagonia, Chile, in 2002. Kruetzen's then-husband Mike Pennings had just completed the first individual free ascent of the Tower via the Bonington-Whillans route (ED: IV 5.11 A2, 700m, Bonington-Whillans, 1963); Kruetzen jumared the first pitch, then followed the rest of the pitches free to make the second female ascent overall. Their success came only a few days after Sean Leary and Zack Smith had made the Tower's first team-free ascent. These climbs remain the only free ascents of the formation. [Photo] Mike Pennings

The Central Tower of Paine

Posted on: November 27, 2006

The striking dihedral of Rosso di Sera, a perfect, 2,500-foot direttissima up an ever-widening crack system on the northwest face of the Central Tower of Paine, loomed above us. Not even a blonde like me could get lost on this rig: the only route finding appeared to be the final summit slopes. Fiery red rock baked in the brilliant sunshine, except for the shadowed recesses of what promised to be epic-ly wide offwidth and chimney climbing. Those shadows reeked of adventure.

I sized up my partner, Chilean Andres Zegers. We had met a week earlier around a modest campfire in Japanese Camp in Chile's Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. He had solicited me for a climb. I had queried him on his experience. He'd told me he had climbed more than twenty different routes on El Capitan, my home turf. Inadvertently, I had just hooked up with Chile's most accomplished big-wall climber.

Now, we craned our necks back as we took in the dihedral above us. "Why don't we just fix a few pitches today?" I said.

"Why don't we just go?" Andres countered. His shaggy mane and casual manner belied an intense desire to take advantage of the ridiculously stable weather.

I was completely taken aback. Given the lateness of the day (past noon) and our meager water supply, I thought my proposition completely reasonable. Yet here I was, challenged by someone I barely knew, to climb in a single push a tower neither of us had tried before. In the end, my ego outweighed my fear, and I agreed to go for the summit. It would be the second ascent of an obscure route on one of the greatest towers in the world—and nearly our last climb as well.

Taste the Paine

I'm often asked why so many more climbers go to Argentina's Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, home to Fitz Roy and the Cerro Torre group, than to the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (pronounced "pine-eh"). The devalued Argentine peso probably contributes to this trend, but the main reason may lie with the Chilean bureaucracy. Before 1995, each climber was charged a $100 fee for a permit that took up to a week to process and required a trip to the Park's headquarters, a daylong detour that felt especially grating when the weather was favorable. In 1995, the fee was raised to $800. Though the next year the fee returned to $100-per-person, most climbers continued to avoid the Paine. For the last three years, the fee has actually been omitted, but the cumbersome permit system remains in place, and last season a surprise proof-of-insurance requirement cropped up as well. Los Glaciares, in contrast, requires merely a quick sign in.

But it is this same scarcity of climbers that makes the Paine region attractive to the few who visit. Unlike the heavy traffic now associated with the normal routes on Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, there is rarely more than one party at a time on even the most popular Tower routes. Such small numbers contribute to a more intimate atmosphere. And while climbers in Los Glaciares are divided between El Chalten and three separate base camps, with little contact between them, Japanese Camp—established in 1987 by Yasushi Yamazaki's four-man team at the head of the Ascension Valley, near the Tower's western flanks—serves as a focal point for eighty percent of Paine expeditions. Amid the heightened camaraderie that results, Paine climbers cheer each other's victories, freely give beta and offer a safety net to those in danger. Andres and I were hardly the first to have teamed up spontaneously.

At the southern tip of the Andes in Chilean Patagonia, the Cordillera Paine forms a compact group only about twenty-five kilometers in diameter. Viewed from afar, the three main peaks—the South Tower (2500m), the Central Tower (2460m) and the North Tower (2260m)—protrude out of the grasslands like colossal stone fingers, rising from nearly sea level to their summit heights in a few kilometers. The North Tower's summit is the most heavily trodden, and the South Tower is the tallest, but for climbers, the Central Tower is the real prize, its saber-like shape irresistibly alluring. As Evelio Echevarria wrote in the 1975 American Alpine Journal (AAJ), these towers reminded a nineteenth-century Argentine traveler of a massif in his home country called "Paine," and he lent them the same name. The word means "sky-blue"—which to many stormbound climbers may seem a mischievous designation.

Linked inextricably to the Towers, and adjacent to the Seno Ultima Esperanza ("Sound of Last Hope"), is the coastal village of Puerto Natales. Natales, as the locals call it, is a sea village, with waters navigable to the Pacific. It is the gateway to Paine, and on any given summer day half a dozen buses carry trekkers on the three-hour journey from town to the Park. From the bus drop-off, a four-hour approach brings them to the Mirador viewpoint, where, on a clear day, the Towers' red stone contrasts sharply with the green slopes below and the deep blue Patagonian sky above. Their immensity is overwhelming: though still more than two kilometers away, the lofty summits force visitors to tilt their heads back nearly forty-five degrees to take them in. I still get goosebumps from this view as I envision tiny climbers throwing themselves at the monolithic facades.

Such cloudless views are rare, for the weather provides "one serious drawback to an otherwise ideal area," as Ian Clough, a member of the Central Tower's first-ascent team, wrote in the 1964 AAJ. More often than not the ferocious Patagonian gales stop parties close to their intended summit. When the wind does drop, relief and panic come at the same time. It's as if a meter were ticking aloud, counting down until the inevitable bluster returns.

Out of the immense landscape arises another, peculiar characteristic: every climber I've talked to dreams vividly in Paine. Maybe waking up at all times of the night to do weather checks helps bring dreams into focus. Or maybe there is more to it than that: at least seven climbers have lost their lives among the Towers over the last twelve years. Are their spirits still there?

The Pope's Men versus the Dirtbags

Solidarity between different Paine teams was not always a constant: the first ascent of the Central Tower must rank as one of the craziest races for a summit a mountain has ever known. In 1957-8, a team of Italians climbed the highest peak in the area, Paine Grande, then moved to the other side of the range, where Jean Bich (who would become the namesake for the col between the North and Central Towers), Leonardo Carrel, Camillo Pellissier and Pierino Pession knocked off the North Tower, via a line known today as the Monzino Route. In the process, they spied a logical line up the Central Tower's north arete and determined to return.

Click here to discuss this NewsWire

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.