One Last Hoorah: Patagonia Trip Report

Posted on: April 17, 2008

Attempt on Taller del Sol (5.10+, 600m). [Photo] Daniel Ressler collection

Around a month ago my partner Dave and I came to Patagonia with absolutely no idea what, if anything, we'd be able to accomplish. Information on climbing here is scarce and the accounts we had seen are from world-class alpinists, with whom we struggle to relate. Since then, I am happy to say, we have come a long way.

Our first goal was to climb the Monzino Route (V 5.10 650m), which follows the south ridge to the summit of the north tower of Paine.


For many days we would wake at 2 a.m. to check the weather. Often, the skies were cloudy and the winds violent, so we would roll over and go back to sleep. Other occasions we'd wake to find starkly bright stars piercing the protective canopy of our Lengua Forest and we'd embark on our climb, only to be turned back by harsh conditions higher up in the mountains.

One such day, as we picked our way through the loose talus of glacial moraine, the wind shoved and punched us from every direction. Prolonged gusts would suck the wind out of your lungs. Being relentlessly shoved and denied breath was seriously demoralizing.

Each time we ventured to the base of our climb, we cached more gear. So, finally we were in position to make the trip completely unencumbered.

One day we realized that the barometric pressure was the highest it had been yet and that the upward trend spanned several days. "Tomorrow is the day," we said with renewed confidence.

That phrase had been uttered every day for the last week by a Columbian team who shared our camp. Every day they went to the base of the route, regardless of the apparent weather, only to come back, the weather having failed to yield. We noticed this barometric event on their last night at the park.

At 2 a.m. we found stars and scant wind. Buzzing with energy, we wolfed down our breakfast and were on the move by 3 a.m.

For two hours we ascended wooded trails, steep scree slopes and then the lose talus of glacial moraine. At our gear cache, just as it was about to be light, the weather remained calm. We hadn't been further than this point and I had to fight to keep my heart rate low to preserve my energy, in spite of my excitement.

The next two hours we ascended the 2000-foot talus slope at the base of the tower. With every step up we gained a more breathtaking view of the wild landscape around us.

Finally, at the base of the sheer west face of the tower, we traversed and picked our way into a gully that leads to the col in between the lofty central tower and north tower. From there we simulclimbed for six rope-lengths on easy, but icy, rock, mixed with patches of snow.

Once we gained the Col, we had an intimate view of the 7000-foot drop on the other side. Since I lead the first six pitches, Dave took the next two, which were the two most difficult (5.10) on the route. I was incredulous that he could climb at all, given the cold and wind in the notch. When I followed the pitches, I paused to warm my hands on the back of my neck numerous times.

From there I took the lead and we raced another six pitches of easy to moderate rock to the top.

When we reached the top, we noticed that there was a large, apparently unclimbable, boulder that stood fifty feet higher than our stance. "Perhaps we should go check that out," I suggested to Dave.

Around that time, a team from Spain joined us at our stance. "This is the summit," they asserted. So we relaxed and enjoyed the gob smacking view from the top.

On the east we could peered down 10,000 feet to the flat green steppe, or pampas, that extend to the horizon. On the west we looked down upon the sheer 3000-foot faces of Escudo, Fortulessa and Tridente on the opposite side of the valley. Beyond we could see black needles shrouded by glacier, and then a vast icecap, with a covering of cloud. Even on such a calm day, the wind in high places is made evident by lenticular clouds, stretched across parts of the sky.

Climbing the North Tower via Monzino (10a, 650m). [Photo] Daniel Ressler collection

Seeking an advantage in our pooled resources, we joined with the Spanish team for the decent. Four hours and twelve or so rappels later and we were at the base of the tower, and a catatonic four hours of down-scrambling got us back to our tent.

In twenty-two hours we had ascended and descended around 7000 feet, 2000 of which was technical climbing, and covered more than ten miles of ground. As we lay down to sleep, our alarm from the morning sounded. What a long day!

The next day we celebrated with pasta and a bottle of wine we had dragged to base camp. Later in the evening we made a fire and chatted with a team from South Africa, who had been successful on the central tower the day before.

"Did you climb the summit boulder," one of them asked us. We told him that we didn't and explained the circumstances. Arrg! It turns out you can climb the summit boulder, and it isn't even that hard (5.8)—you just have to get close to see the features.

In the turbulence of mood that inevitably follows the obtaining of a large goal and extreme physical endeavor, the fact of the missed summit boulder nagged at us. Perhaps we weren't fit for Patagonia after all.

Having completed, at least to some degree, the Monzino route we were suddenly for want of a goal. Should we just head out and continue our journey elsewhere?

Amidst our indecision, we reached news that an eleven-day weather window was coming to the area. This is unheard of in Patagonia. We simply had to do something.

One possibility was a route called Taller del Sol (V 5.10+). This route was also on the north tower, but instead of following the ridge, it goes straight up the sheer west face for over ten vertical pitches at our climbing limit. It was a long shot. But how amazing would it be to have another shot at that summit boulder, and via such a sustained and direct line.

We would need every possible advantage, so we moved much of our gear to an advanced base camp at the base of the talus slope at the base of the tower. Our new home was a dubiously propped up multi-ton boulder atop a moraine. We had just enough room for the two of us to wriggle in, but once in, it was quite cozy.

After a few days of bad weather and carrying more gear up to our advanced site, we had our chance.

Dave started our climb, but we were still unsure which crack system we were supposed to take. Two pitches up, we called down to some of our new Chilean friends who were passing below, on their way to do the Monzino route. They told us they thought our route was further to the right, but they weren't sure. We aimed to continue from where we were, but trend right if we could. Soon after we saw the Dutch team we had been hanging out with at base camp, also on their way to the Monzino route. One of the Dutch had attempted Taller del Sol on a previous expedition, so we knew he could set us straight. "It's over to the right, around this pillar," he called to us. Damn. We had to retreat. Not just because we off-route, but also because we had reached blank section on our own route that we could not climb past.

During the rappel to the base, one of our lines became stuck. How could this day get worse?

Back on solid ground, I thrust all my weight into the rope and it finally came free. With the minor victory I pulled myself of out the funk of feeling the waste of the day and racked up to climb the proper line.

Where success was a long shot before, now it was just about impossible. Either way, we would get to enjoy some high-quality climbing.

Right off the base, the climbing was difficult and often sopping wet, but, even so, it was some of the most beautiful climbing I had ever experienced. Several times I stopped and felt amazement that I was actually climbing at my limit in such a beautiful environment.

After three pitches, Dave took the lead. His first pitch was a 5.10+ off-width crack about 6-inches wide, which took great energy to follow. His second pitch was an easier (for this route) 5.9 chimney that continued for 150 feet.

In the chimney you could lock your back up against one side with an outstretched leg. Then you'd press your other foot under your butt to make upward progress in the perfect position to stare down at the growing exposure. I was looking down around 1000 feet to the base of the route, at this point, and about 4000 feet to the bottom of the valley.

Afterward, I took the rack for another 5.10+ pitch. This grade is truly at my limit, and here I was, cramping and fatigued from around twelve hours of exertion. My movements were made with less hesitation than ever before, but my footwork was getting a little less precise.

The pitch started with a thin finger lieback to a sloped mantle on a sloped ledge. From there there was more liebacking on a large detached flake that rang like a bell when tapped. Once atop the "chopping block" flake, as it is dubbed on our topo, there lay ahead of me a thin finger crack, followed by a jug.

"A few hard moves and I get that jug to hang on?" I thought to myself. No problem. I checked the micro cam I had placed at chest level and committed to the moves. I pulled on my fingers slotted in the crack and pushed with my feet, smearing on the granite. One move. Two...big reach to the jug. But it wasn't a jug. It was a marginal pinch. I started to reverse the moves to regain my last solid stance. The image of the last cam I placed flashed in my mind, but before it could fruit into a coherent thought, my world began to accelerate. Then everything slowed and I came to a very soft stop.

When I fell, my last piece of protection was a little below my feet, but, since I was at the end of our rope, I fell 25 feet with the stretch. Dave barely even felt the catch on his belay.

"I'm good," I called down to Dave. "I'm going to batman up now."

So I proceeded to climb back up to my last piece by pulling on the rope. I experienced an uncontrollable surge of adrenalin and my forearms cramped solid. The pinky of my left hand contracted around the rope, without my ability to release the action. I jammed the offending finger in my mouth and set it straight again.

I had lost confidence in my motion, so I French-freed the last fifteen feet of the pitch.

"I think it's time we rappel now," Dave called up. No! I cried inwardly. We had completed the most difficult pitches of the route and only had four more pitches left! Alas, it was 9:30 p.m., it was beginning to get dark and I was fried. We could push into the dark. Damn...we needed to be fitter and more experienced and we needed not to start the day off-route.

Down we went, into the night.

When climbing, your mind is occupied with controlling the many variables around you. As you descend, there is only quiet and the rolling of the dice every time you pull your rope after a rappel. Will it get stuck? Will we get down? This is when questions of life and purpose flood the mind. You think of family and your girlfriend and you feel intense want for the simple things.

What waited for us back at camp was a couple servings of rice and a can of tuna; the last of our three week food supply. Chances were this was our last foray in Paine.

We woke the next morning, under our boulder in the moraine, to Voyteck, one of the South African team, poking his head in our hole saying, "wake up Americans, we're going to climb Taller del Sol."

Voytek's team, in the recent slew of good-weather days had amazingly reached the summit of all three towers. With such success, the rest of his team left. Having been unsatisfied by the aid climbing and poor stone on the other routes, Voytek wanted one last hurrah.

"But we don't have any more food," we replied.

"I have leftovers from the rest of the team," he explained.

We were dumbfounded. Already we had experience similar generosity from the Dutch team, who pitched in some pasta and chocolate when they heard we were getting short on food and now Voytek aimed to keep us here another four days.

A rest day passed, as we needed to repair ourselves from our first attempt. Then we ascended the talus in bad weather to see how the day would turn out.

Wind buffeted us and snow and rain blurred our vision. But we wanted to at least get a start on the route. I lead the first pitch. Voytek led the second.

As I belayed Voytek, amidst the fury of Patagonian weather, an explosion rocked the valley. I looked to my right, where the sky had blotted out and watched multiple tons of rock fall from a 1000 feet up, off the central tower. Time slowed as the air filled with pulverized granite and spinning boulders.

"Yeehaw," I yelled into the aftermath to shake off the shock of what I had just seen.

At the end of the second pitch, the weather obviously wasn't going to give way, so we fixed the ropes in place and left our gear hanging from the anchor so we would have a head start the next day.

Back down we went and spent the rest of the days eating and rehydrating.

The next morning was perfect. We climbed the talus, climbed our ropes and pretty soon had reclaimed the pitches Dave and I had seen on our previous attempt. Almost at sunset we reached the summit—the true summit.

The following days, as Dave and I moved our gear down from advanced base camp, there was much happiness at base camp, as many teams had had success during the good weather. What struck me the most was the enthusiasm other teams had for Dave and my success.

Yesterday we moved the last of our gear to the base of the park and jumped onto a bus to Argentina, where I am catching up to you now.

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