There’s a joke here that when the wind stops blowing, Patagonian chickens fall over. And it might be true, if there were any chickens in Patagonia. As far as I can tell you’d need to either be a condor or a sparrow to survive in these parts – either big enough to ride the gale, or small enough to hide. A chicken would be large enough to catch air but not substantial enough to resist it. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t seen any. Perhaps they’ve been blown to the Falklands.
But the fact is, a few days ago, all the proverbial chickens fell over. The Windguru forecast was down to a 1, which is the lowest wind speed we’ve seen during an entire month in El Chalten. This was our last weather window in Patagonia, our final chance to return to the mountains and settle the unfinished business of Dave and Calum’s new line.
Walking back into the hills was for me some form of groundhog day, heading back up the same old trails, through the same old forests, past the same old lakes and water meadows and streams. It’s weird how familiarity can render even a UNESCO wilderness mundane, but walking up hills when you’re not in the mood isn’t conducive to wonder. And I wasn’t in the mood.
We reached our gear stash at the top of the Lago de los Tres and repacked for the long haul up the glacier. This time around it was cold, so the walk across hard snow was much easier than the slush-wallow of before. We climbed and climbed, the effort of ascent now so achingly familiar, and rose once again from the lowlands. The granite towers and snowfields grew closer and we entered the rarified world of high mountains.
Sometimes, I love the simplicity of glacier life. Everything is reduced to the basics: melting snow for water, putting up a tent for shelter, wearing many layers to stay warm, resting from the walk in and recovering for tomorrow. With things this simple it’s easier to notice that you’re alive, (and when was the last time you remembered to notice?) Perhaps it’s just that the mountains invite a readier contrast between blood and sentience, and the impassive expanse of ice and rock. And perhaps that’s in part what I love about being up there: the special warmth in a cup of tea, the incomparable richness of a hot meal, or the gratitude to a sleeping bag which has gathered body heat only to reflect it back?
We camped up at Paso Superior, a small, sheltered col beneath the Fitzroy massif and truly, one of the great bivvi sites of the world. I sat there and watched the cloud billowing off the chimney-stack peaks, swirling in the wind that was blowing up there but absent from our little frozen idyll. And that night I left the others to make the most of the small tent space, and bivvied out again.
I was woken at some point with a spray of spindrift in my face. The wind had picked up and it was snowing heavily when I poked my head out. Again, this was not forecast and again, I knew it was Patagonia testing our resolve. Tomorrow would be fine, I thought as I pulled the bag tight around my head. Tomorrow we would go climbing.
It turned out that the others either ignored the 4am alarm, or forgot to set it. Instead I woke at five with the sky looking bruised and moody and dawn faltering in the east. No alpenglow for us. No dramatic wakening of the mountains. And it was cold. How cold I don’t know, but everything was deep frozen and stiff and covered with an inch of fresh snow that had fallen. It was one of those mornings where optimism looked foolish and hope, its poor deluded cousin. But we had invested much time and effort and so pulled ourselves from the warmth of our bags and set out across the glacier to the base of Mermoz.
It was clear that the weather was some way from perfect, even though there was no wind. Snow storms were floating around the massif like heavy, malevolent beasts, thumping into cliffs with fresh dumps of powder. It wasn’t until we reached the bottom of Mermoz that one floated overhead, obscuring the summit and clouding the air with thick flakes. Within moments spindrift avalanches were pouring down the gullies and runnels and piling on the slope above us. Ally set off into the increasing depth of powder, but Dave and Calum paused. They discussed. Then they called Ally back down with the decision to bail. Today was just not a day for climbing.
Turning back is always hard, but particularly so at the end of a trip like this. A month in Patagonia was ending, and this was our very last chance. I found it difficult to accept that we’d put in all this effort, climbed so far, come so close to the face and been turned around again. It was infuriating. This is what I profess to love – the lack of control in the mountains, the need for humility to accept the cards dealt – yet there I was, peering darkly into the deep gulf of disappointment. It couldn’t end like this. We couldn’t leave Patagonia with one paltry summit between us (Mojon Rojo, the diminutive peak Ally and I had climbed at the start). We couldn’t leave with just two new but small and largely insignificant lines.
To salvage what we could, Calum, Ally and I decided on an impromptu photoshoot while Dave headed back down. The steep, one pitch runnel of ice at the bottom of the 500 metre face wasn’t much, but at least it would give me some of the technical climbing shots I’ve been so desperately seeking this trip. And so as the others sorted ropes, I set off up the slope, ploughing back through Ally’s tracks, up to the bergschrund, across the gaping hole and up.
The slope got steeper and less stable and my feet slid away at each step. Every inch required two solid axe placements and a double kick for each foot. It was exhausting. And then the weather really closed in, the cloud came down and even the nearby ice runnel disappeared into the sensory mash-up that is a white-out. I couldn’t see the slope I was on any more, nor the others below. In the all encompassing white horror, my only reference point was a thin rope snaking uselessly down into the cloud. And still the snow came down.
I needed to find somewhere to attach myself to in order to bring the others safely over the bergschrund, but there was nothing except steep, unstable snow. I knew there were some bolts on the rock way over to the left, but I couldn’t see anything. Instead, I headed for a vague darkening in the otherwise white desert: a huge crevasse that I could straddle the edge of. And from there, I brought Ally and Calum up.
We were back in familiar terrain: Ally and I looking at each other, knowing it was time to go down. Today, we’d not even get the climbing pictures I’d hoped for. But by then any disappointment had evaporated in the relief of turning around. This was unequivocal weather, the kind of weather that puts options of continuing beyond reasonable debate. It was snowing heavily, the slopes were shedding their loads beneath us and we just needed to get down.
As luck would have it, once we reached the safety of the rock and bolts and began to abseil off, the storm cleared. The snow stopped, the cloud lifted and we emerged into a wild, wild arena of enormous mountains. It was breathtaking beyond belief. Powder avalanches cascaded down the faces all around, harmless but beautiful: the mountains shaking snow like a dogs fresh from a river. Shredded clouds hung from the faces, gently uncurling into nothingness. And I took photos. It wasn’t the hard climbing I was after, but it was gnarly, epic and authentic. Really, I couldn’t have asked for more.
By the time we were back on the glacier, the mountains were bathed in glorious sunshine… and I was asking for more. I still couldn’t accept we’d been kicked off just moments before – as it turned out – two days of rare and perfect weather. I felt cheated. I wanted summits. I wanted climbing. I wanted so much more of this place, but there was nothing on offer. Just defeat. Just three tiny figures on a glacier in an enormous mountain landscape, looking at lines they would probably never climb. We were leaving the great mountains for the final time, and it was hard.
We made our own ways back to El Chalten and at our own speed. Each of us carried a monstrous load down through throngs of tourists and trekkers, some of whom fired off surreptitious shots when they thought we weren’t looking. We were apparitions from the high mountains, refugees from some iconic, mythical land. We carried heavy loads, looked knackered and smelled bad. Whether we represented the heroic or the pitiful, I just couldn’t say.
Thankfully, the walk down brought about an eventual transition to equanimity. The disappointment slowly relinquished it’s hold on me, and into the space emerged a growing sense of relief. It was over, all the hard work and struggle, all the hills, all the excruciatingly packs and sore bodies and heavy, heavy loads. Our work here was done, and we were returning with no deeper scars than disappointment, nothing more broken than our dreams.
Regardless of the climbing, I also had a pretty comprehensive shoot in the bag. With over 5,000 images, my brief had been fulfilled. Rab, who had commissioned me and supported our crazy, hopeful, perhaps hopeless endeavour, would have all the images of Patagonia they’d need for some time.
Not far from the Poincenot campsite and still a couple of hours from town, I sat down beside a stream. I dumped my heavy bag and took off my shoes and socks and lay down in the sun. I could hear the water murmuring, the small birds chirping. A gentle breeze played in the trees, but it was no chicken blower. I sat there looking at the mountains, the great towers of granite that had proven impossible to climb, and my gaze drifted down. Down across the glaciers and scree slopes, down over the cliffs, down to the forests, to the trees, to the stream, and, finally, to rest on a lone head of grass bobbing above the water, it’s seeds waiting to release. And as I lay there watching, breathing, feeling, I was overtaken with a sense of the deepest peace. After all that effort, all that seeking of adventure, success, pictures or whatever, I had finally arrived in the now.