Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre

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Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre A lan K earney

T HE M O R N IN G o f D ecem ber 23 her­ alded the start o f our third day on the N orth Pillar o f Fitz R oy. T here was enough light to begin clim bing but we were tired. M y partner Bobby K night slept soundly and he needed the rest. A round m idnight a m oisture-laden storm had com e pouring out o f the inky sky. H ail, snow and w ater flowed dow n the cracks and gushed out directly at him . He danced about, trying to avoid the torrent and divert the w ater by rearranging rocks and digging tiny ditches. D uring his m o­ m ent o f frustration I saw an opportunity and handed over my bottle for a refill. The gesture was thoughtless, I suppose, but thirst nagged at my throat. O ur ledge was room y and although the m idnight storm caused a loss o f sleep, it provided us with plenty o f w ater. I put a fresh butane cartridge in our m iniature stove and tried not to disturb Bobby as I brew ed up hot T ang and cocoa. Breakfast was only a m eans o f procrastinating. The real problem lay above us. How m any more nights w ould we spend on this colossal m ountain in A rgentina w ithout sleeping bags? They were too heavy o f course. The am ount o f aid, wet cracks and bad w eather w ould determ ine the num ber o f rem aining bivies. So far the w eather had been unbelievable. For ten days straight the w ind had blow n very little and the clouds filled the valleys and covered the Patagonian Icecap. From 7000 feet on up, the sky rem ained blue, and we could catch glim pses o f it from inside Fitz R o y ’s private cloud that cloaked the upper half o f the granite m onolith. The evening storm s we had been experiencing vanished in the m orning but this trend could not last. “ In storm you m ust leave carabiner on abseil an ch o rs,” com m ented Thom as W üschner, dow n at the beach-forest hut. “The rope freeze and you cannot pull rope do w n .” The statem ent now had m ore clarity from our perch 2500 feet above the Piedras G lacier, and I estim ated there w ere still tw enty pitches o f hard clim bing to reach the sum m it. But I w anted to clim b the m ountain desperately, and a certain am ount of gam bling was necessary. For nearly tw o years it had dom inated my thoughts, and to several o f my friends I m ust have appeared a little deranged. If the conversation strayed from Fitz Roy I w ould redirect it to put the spotlight on my dream . N ow , even in the grips o f reality, w ith aching jo in ts, tired m uscles and sleep-starved brain I rem ained euphoric. W here else in the w orld was there a view like this?

W ith the w et snow storm last night even I thought the gam e was up, but the sun cam e out and the wet rock started steam ing. “H ot w ater,” I signalled to B obby as he fetched his mug. The w orld could be in flames w hen he is tucking aw ay his cocoa; after the cup was drained, I detected a slight sparkle in those tired eyes. I leap-frogged up a wet crack the first eighty feet w ith Friends and then started jam m ing as the crack dried out. O ur one pack lost m ore w eight w ith the rem oval o f the stove and both bivy sacs, left on the ledge below , but it hardly com pensated for out greater loss o f energy. W ater, how ever, was not in short supply. A bove me a squeeze chim ney and off-w idth crack dripped w ith the stuff. Bobby led the chim ney pitch adm irably and that left me with the “aw ful w id th ,” w hich glistened w ith w ater and flared lightly. It lacked appeal, but a nearby crack accepted pins and sm all stoppers nicely, allow ing me to circum vent the nasty gash in the w all. The second crack eventually converged with the first and a good deal o f w rithing and heavy breathing finally put the six-inch fissure below us. O ur progress was m eager. W e had been clim bing all day and only com pleted five pitches. That d id n ’t seem so bad though, when I thought about R enato C asarotto spending 43 days on the first ascent o f the N orth Pillar in 1979. He clim bed ju st 200 feet during a storm y day in late D ecem ber and on another day, 350 feet. But he kept at it. W e found his fixed pins and scraps o f rope here and there, although our line deviated from his on many pitches. His intention was not to solo the route, but the other tw o Italian clim bers engaged in the venture becam e de­ pressed by the distasteful w eather and went hom e. A lone on the m ountain he had clim bed every pitch, hauled and fixed over one mile o f rope and carried up sackfuls o f pitons, biners and w ooden w edges. W hat a task! Bobby and I d id n ’t have any fixed rope high on the pillar to rely on and night was closing in. W e still h ad n ’t reached the top o f the p illar w hen darkness and fog drenched everything. I popped the plastic outer boots o ff my rock shoes and led up thin cracks and over fantastic little knobs. Small snow m ushroom s 40 feet above revealed the top o f the N orth Pillar, but the notch betw een the p illar and the main wall o f Fitz Roy was enveloped in fog. W e heard voices com ing from the notch and knew that the Poles had gotten that far after tw elve days o f siege clim bing up the p illar’s w est side. T here was no way we could reach the notch tonight. W e chopped ice from a ledge and kicked off a couple o f loose rocks as our headlam ps sent sporadic rays o f light into the gloom . It began to snow as we sat dow n on the rope with nothing for w arm th but our clothing. W ith the night grow ing colder and nothing to eat, any discussion betw een us evaporated and our thoughts follow ed separate channels. I thought o f food and rem em bered w hat T hom as W ü schner had said w hen I asked him if he exercised to stay in shape during the long storm s: “No. If you here a m onth, you d o n ’t eat m uch at first, then you eat m ore. You start in the m orning and eat all day. It is the only w ork h e re .”

M y stom ach had nothing in it, the m orning was clear and cold and although I felt giddy, my desire to finish the clim b had not died yet. Bobby led a traverse across steep snow to the p illar’s top and I did tw o rappels dow n into the notch and greeted the Poles as they started to cook breakfast. I traded M ichal Kochanczak a roll o f E ktachrom e for a pot of instant corn m eal . He apologized for the flecks o f gravel that peppered the food, but it d id n ’t bother us at all. I m anaged a great smile: the day was D ecem ber 24 and the w eather was perfect. Bobby clim bed up cracks and flakes to a point w here the w all poured with snow m elt. He w inced at the prospect o f getting soaked and w anted to jü m ar the Polish ropes. I did not. A serious argum ent follow ed and I painfully stated that I preferred retreat to using their ropes. How absurd! The fourth day on Fitz Roy, thirty-five pitches o f hard clim bing, starving and w eak, and I refused to cheat. They thought I was a fool and so did Bobby, I ’m sure, but he finally responded. “ If the sum m it m eans that m uch to you and you d o n ’t want to use the fixed ropes. I ’ll try, but you will have to do m ore o f the hard lead s.” C urving steep cracks sw iftly disappeared beneath us and the pleasure of clim bing on excellent rock softened my bad m em ories o f our argum ent at the notch. A bove the Poles shouted unintelligible w ords back and forth as they reascended their ropes. To them I m ust have appeared m ad, leading strenuous pitches as a fixed rope dangled a few feet to one side. Fog, sun, hail and more fog brushed the m ountain as we scram bled onto rotten ice with ice ham m ers, but no cram pons. W e met the Poles descending from the sum m it as we prepared to clim b the low -angle ice. They eyed us skeptically. I tried to tell Peter we had to leave “a few things behind” in order to clim b the N orth Pillar in four days. Boulders appeared and the sought-after view s o f the nearby peaks, esp e­ cially Cerro T orre, aw aited us. I have alw ays tried hard to clim b m ountains in the best possible style and had I reached the sum m it by other m eans, my de­ m eanor w ould have gone sour. As it w as, the view that m eant so m uch to me did not exist. Fog and m ist obscured all but Poincenot and patches o f blue sky over the Pam pas. For me there was no w elling up o f em otions or arm s thrust into the air in the victory salute, ju st sadness. W e began to leave and at that m om ent the clouds parted for fifteen seconds, unveiling the rim e-coated spire o f C erro T orre. If ever there was a m ountain that had deserved the “im possible” label, the T orre was it. Three m onths earlier my friend Steve M ascioli had asked me a sim ple question. “W hat about Cerro T orre?” “Too dang ero u s,” I replied. “W ith all that wind blow ing and ice falling o ff it w ould be suicid e.” But the question pestered m e, and now that the phantom m ountain had subm erged back into the fog I w ondered. Tw o weeks after com pleting Fitz Roy, I found m yself in the T orre V alley confronting a very anxious and energetic Sw iss clim ber. Beda Fuster had trav ­ elled to Patagonia alone in hopes o f finding a partner and clim bing the T orre. He team ed up with an A ustralian clim ber who was not very experienced on ice, so they both decided to term inate the clim bing partnership. Beda was fresh out of partners and that left only me.

To clim b C erro T orre with Beda I needed zip, and I was tired. He said to me with clenched fists, “I have so much energy for this m ountain that I m ust clim b it.” G reat, I thought, you h av en ’t already endured seven w eeks in Patagonia, frosted your toes with two sleepless and foodless bivouacs on Fitz R oy, clim bed seventy pitches and perform ed sixty-five rappels in two attem pts. Energy is not som ething you ju st pull out o f a bag. I saw in Beda the sam e desire I had had for Fitz Roy and the frustration when he no longer had a partner. By jo ining him I could fill the gap and his enthusiasm m ight stim ulate me into action. W ell why not? I thought. W e probably will ju st sit in this dism al hut for a m onth and never see the m ountain anyw ay. Thirteen days later we ascended 2000 feet o f snow , ice and rock to the Col o f Patience and the w ind was not blow ing. A bove soared the southeast ridge, the ice tow ers, the sheer headw all and finally the sum m it ice m ushroom o f C erro Torre. I was not shaken visibly by this spectacle, but a trem or passed through me. W here was the lousy w eather w hen I needed it? That hut w asn ’t such a bad place really. W ith the light that rem ained we clim bed five pitches up the ridge, and excavated a tw o-and-half by six-foot ledge in the hard snow . I rapidly devoured my rem aining lunch and freeze-dried dinner, but my nervous and em pty stom ­ ach refused to digest the food and I threw up everything. Feeling w eak, I nibbled on a 100-gram bar o f Sw iss chocolate and fell asleep under the stars. T he m orning brought a blanket o f dark grey clouds that neatly covered the sum m its o f Fitz Roy and Poincenot. N ot a scrap o f blue sky rem ained and I d id n ’t feel very strong from losing my lunch and dinner, but I could still clim b. B eda w anted to take the lead, thinking I w ould be pretty slow and useless. Perhaps he was right, but I d id n ’t jo in him only to operate a Sticht plate and a pair o f Jüm ars. A short aid pitch led to m ixed ground below a squeeze chim ney. I led the large crack quickly in plastic boots, placing nuts and clipping into fixed pins. Beda got a pitch o f steep flakes, and then we each led excellent m ixed pitches up coarse granite w ith patches o f ice and snow. From B ed a’s sem i-hanging belay garnished with faded ropes, a harness, pins and biners, I started a diagonal pitch free clim bing next to M aestri’s bolts. The bolt traverse ate up several hours, and as we aided across the blank rock, I w ondered how we w ould get back dow n it. So that I m ight save som e o f my stom ach lining for the headw all and ice m ushroom , I stopped fretting and looked for the next bolt. L ate in the afternoon we were approaching m oderate ice ram ps w hen the clouds unzipped w ith snow and fierce w inds. In 1979 D on Peterson cam e to clim b Cerro T orre w ith T om B aum an. B efore he departed I asked him if he was excited about his trip. “Yes terribly. I love the w ind, I love the w ind, I love the w in d ,” he chanted. T w enty-six pitches up on the T orre his m edicine did not w ork for me. Instead, tiny pieces o f ice driven at high speed stung my m outh. T his was

ridiculous. As I approached B ed a’s belay on the ice ram ps I indicated the stu­ pidity o f continuing our ascent. He suggested we go a “ little h ig h er,” and because the clim bing looked inter­ esting, and it was my lead, I agreed. I threaded my way up solid ram ps o f rim e and w ater-ice, up a gully, tw isted in a screw and then clim bed thirty feet on fragile rim e to the site o f the A ustrian’s bivy. H ans B ärnthaler and M anfred L orenz had been ahead o f us for tw o days now and we w ere happy to finally catch them . T hey felt it best to stop early (it was seven P .M .), and assess the situation in the m orning. V isibility was dow n to 80 feet and sm all bristles o f rim e began to form on our ropes and clothing. O ur perch betw een several steep gullies becam e m ore bi­ zarre with each passing hour. Ice feathers grew out of the wall as violent gusts o f w ind tried to tear the bivy sac o ff my body. I clutched it tighter and fussed with the butane stove to produce hot tea and dinner. O ur ledge was tw o by four feet and chipped out o f solid ice, but it beat standing up o r hanging in a h am ­ mock. Ice screw s, pins, stoppers, Friends, ham m ers, cram pons and our ropes hung in clusters all around us. So far Beda had dropped a m itten, an étrier and his headlam p, and I insisted he clip everything into slings including my pack, w hich he used for a pad. I dozed for a few m om ents at a tim e but could not sleep through the roar o f the w ind. O n our third day the sun cam e out and the w ind reduced itself to a breeze. The anxiety from the previous night was gone and the intense storm seem ed to have dissipated although a lot o f clouds rem ained around the m ountain. The decision was unanim ous; we w ould all go up. A fter four pitches of rim e-ice and bolts I led directly above the ice tow ers on vertical flakes, the only free pitch on the headw all. M y fingers curled over the sm ooth w afers o f granite as I stuffed Friends behind them for protection. Ice filled the cracks, but the flakes w ere bare and the m oves exhilarating. Below , the tips o f the ice tow ers rose 100 feet above the fog as the ant-like red and blue shapes o f Hans and M anfred traversed the rim e to the head w all’s base. Sw irling clouds hid the glaciers below , Fitz Roy was seldom visible and the upper 600 feet o f the T orre stood alone. N ever in my life had I been in such a place. On up the bolts we went to M aestri’s com pressor and then Beda stepped gingerly into B ridw ell’s rotting bits o f perlon attached to rivets as the clouds again w rapped us in w hite gloom . W ind-blow n rim e from the m ushroom started to bom bard me as the refreshed storm scream ed at the m ountain. The only sound louder than the w ind was that o f my teeth grinding. I was not going to retreat that close to the top and in another 45 m inutes I groped no farther. In three directions the edge o f the m ushroom fell aw ay into a cloud-torn void 5000 feet deep. Beda was all sm iles as he staggered tow ard me in the fearsom e gale. H ans and M anfred reached the top only m inutes behind us, but we reserved any rejoicing until later.

The storm did not vanish. W e had to cut 100 feet off our 300-foot rope when it hung up on the third rappel, and grapple with cable-like icy ropes. The w ind tore at us from every side, our eyelashes froze shut and my locking ’biner kept freezing open on rappel. Upon reaching the glacier I d id n ’t get dow n on my hands and knees and kiss the snow , but th a t’s only because the thought did not occur to m e. W as I scared up there? You bet! Later, back at the hut, I realized that I no longer had to w orry about clim bing the Torre. I had clim bed it.

Summary o f Statistics: A rea:

Patagonia, A rgentina

Fitz R oy, 3375 m eters, 11,072 feet, via N orth Buttress; sum m it reached D ecem ber 24, 1984 (A lan K earney, R obert K night).

A scents:

Cerro T orre, 3020 m eters, 9908 feet, via Southeast R idge; sum m it reached, January 23, 1985 (K earney, Beda Fuster o f Sw itzerland).