Off Belay

Posted on: November 27, 2006


Oh, shit—not again.

By the time I considered yelling down to Josh, it was too late: the pinballing had begun. I bounced between the flanks of the gully and over a rock step with enough time to consider my last piece (a number two Camalot—bomber, fortunately) and the relative probability of this moment. I was falling. In Patagonia. Again. Then it was just a matter of sustaining the blows until the cord came taut.

Twenty meters later I stood even with Josh at the belay, more pissed off than relieved. Once he figured out I was OK, he began to giggle. The sound filled the dark gully as Fitz Roy's summit took shape in the dawn above. It was my second time falling with Josh in Patagonia this year alone. Eleven months earlier, just below the summit of Torre Egger, on Hour 4 of a horrendous lead through a melting glob of poorly adhered, overhanging rime ice, I had gone thirty meters, landing on my shoulders next to our partner, Jonny. The force of the fall had ripped out Jonny's ice anchor and he flew upward, giving me a dynamic landing as we counterbalanced on the screw that held us. Josh had laughed that time, too. Now, he finished chortling and simply handed me my crampons.

It was actually my third time falling in Patagonia this year overall. In November 2005, with ski-mountaineering guru Andrew McLean, I skied off the summit mushroom of Cerro Gorra Blanca, a glaciated peak on the Southern Patagonian Icecap. The slope's angle, perhaps only forty degrees, belied the serious consequences, but the snow was carvable. My last jump-turn before the exit traverse nicked a small patch of hidden ice... and suddenly I was soaring over the east face. Fifty meters later, on my second bounce, I clawed to a stop. At my feet a series of overhanging seracs and crevasses ran all the way to the glacier, 500 meters below.

Bean "Crash" Bowers after another unsuccessful round with Fitz Roy in January 2006. He returned later the same month with Josh Wharton to make the first free, and first one-day, ascent of the Casarotto Pillar (VI 5.11, 1200m). [Photo] Helen Motter

Was Patagonia the problem? In 2003, same region, I'd actually managed to fall on horizontal terrain: while skiing across a frozen lake at the base of Fitz Roy, I broke through, right in the middle. I floated in the frigid waters for a second looking at the closest shore, a couple of soccer fields away. "Well, this is gonna be a lot of work," I thought as the slush encased me. "Better get started." I dove under the ice, detached my skis and started trying to mantel onto the rim, skis in hand. The fragile edge cracked, then fractured again. About halfway to shore, my method worked and I was standing. Frantically, I began to run... and broke through once more. It took another fifty meters to get on top. By the time I had put on my remaining ski (the other had sunk to the bottom) and began hypothermically skateboarding, three giant condors had started to circle the antipodean sun. They didn't leave until I was on firm ground, wringing out my clothes. I consider it a good sign that I haven't seen them since.

I can see their point, though: I probably should be dead by now. My girlfriend has started calling me "Crash." I've even begun to believe in cliches: it's not the fall that counts, it's the landing; timing is everything; it's better to be lucky than good. But timing and luck are key elements for the alpinist, and I've started to wonder how I fit into the tradition. Conrad Anker's whipper in the Kitchatnas; Charlie Fowler's falls on the Diamond and in Tibet; Jack Tackle's bingle in Alaska: Did I get handed the baton?

Josh and I topped out on the Casarotto Pillar later that day. I felt lighter as I finished my leads, the morning's whipper hundreds of meters behind me. I'd like to think that when we get handed the Falling Baton, all we have to do is sprint for a while, hope we make it to the next relay, and then just pass it on—after that it's easy going. But as Josh started hoofing it for the descent in the fading light, I realized: then it wouldn't be alpinism.

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