The Chicken’s Fallen Over…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Rise and Fall of Frustration

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Every mountain range has it’s quirks that only familiarity can overcome. And today, we’re back down having become slightly more familiar with Patagonia, and slightly more frustrated. But it mean’s we’re better prepared for next time.

It was, as always, the weather that started it. Throughout the week we’d been watching the three day window shrink, our hopes and plans contracting until there we were, boots on and bags packed, just about to step out the door, when I brought up one final forecast. And the forecast had changed. It suggested we would be walking up in heavy rain and that everything would get soaked. It suggested we wait a day, and so we did.

It was an itchy, uncomfortable day sitting around. Waiting for the ‘best’ weather was something of a gamble, and the following morning, ready once again to leave, it looked like we’d lost our wager. The day outside was perfect, all blue sky and mountains, the wind high but not horrible. Conversely, the wind forecast for our climbing day had increased into the feared double digits. But there was nothing we could do. We were committed, then, to head up and hope to find a wall sheltered enough to climb on.

After two pleasant hours of high speed rambling, the idyll of the forests, lakes and water meadows came to an abrupt end. We hit the hill which climbed from the tranquil trek-lands towards the hardship of the high mountains and began to slog, sweating as we climbed in the unusually hot sun. It was the nicest weather we’d seen all trip. Frustratingly, when we got to Laguna de los Tres we could see the sun had turned the glacier to deep, soft snow that was avalanching miserable wet snow slides. We weren’t up for the effort and the risk and instead cut short our day to bivvi. We’d start very early the following morning instead.

Dave, Calum and Ally opted for the tent while I spent the night in the open. I love sleeping close to the stars. But by midnight, with the entire range was bathed in the eerie glow of a full moon, I realized I wasn’t going to get a lot of sleep. Anticipation and excitement wouldn’t let me rest. I was still up when the first climbers left camp, headtorches picking their way up the glacier in the milky half-light of the moon.

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At 3am, I jumped straight out of my dream and into the unconscious fug of an alpine start. Out of the bag, into a harness, a mug of cold oats for fuel. We set off yet I was neither asleep nor awake; neither dreaming nor within the realm of normal waking consciousness. Nothing sat quite right. The glacial landscape was dark, yet moonlit. The world was deep frozen, yet I was sweating with exertion. I was working hard, yet my body was still snoozy with melatonin. The whole thing was weird, contradictory, disorientating.

Unfortunately, one thing that didn’t stay asleep was my capacity to feel discomfort, and before long before I was back in that familiar world of the uphill struggle. It’s so familiar it’s almost boring – the repetitive inner litany of ‘I can’t go any further’ versus ‘yes you can’, the solitary worrying about fitness, about keeping up, about having a horrible time while the others are, invariably, storming along fine.

I didn’t know it then, but that morning was tough for everyone. We were all suffering with little sleep and a variety of discomforts, yet we were all bound to silence by the unspoken rules of alpinism. Climbing big mountains is always uncomfortable and hard, but in an environment where motivation is everything, stoicism becomes more than just a virtue – it’s a necessity. Without it, we’d have already have started moaning and turned around.

So we all struggled up the glacier in the moonlight, each in our own little worlds of private hardship, each dealing with our difficulties in our own silent ways. Hours passed. I was eventually lost in the hypnotic rhythm of crampons crunching snow, the labored breathing, the bobbing, mesmerizing pool of my headtorch and the battle against the growing pull of inertia. I hardly noticed our progress, the moonlit lake falling away below.

Eventually, we reached Paso Superior where we were supposed to have slept. And there before us – and I mean, right before us – were the mountains we had come for. The phenomenal pyramid of Fitzroy looked close enough to touch. Our goal, Poincenot, rose like ethereal spire from the glacier. And dawn was coming. The first glint of a new day was banding the skies to the east, promising light and an end to this terrible, beautiful, difficult night. We stood there and chewed frozen Clif Bars and energy gels. We drank cold water and stared at the peaks. And then we started shivering. It was freezing; far too cold to go rock climbing as planned.

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Within twenty minutes of our approach to Poincenot the decision was made that we’d have little chance of free climbing Whisky Time in these conditions. It was mixed climbing weather: time for ice runnels and snow. And so, turning away from Poincenot’s spire, we dropped down across the great glacial bowl and headed towards Mermoz for a new line that Dave had spied. And as we did so, something miraculous happened.

At first, it looked like an optical illusion: the pinkening of the mountains; a gentle blush to the snow. And then the cloud which spilled from the summit of Fitzroy turned a crazy orange. I looked up. The place had caught fire. Suddenly it was so obvious why early travellers to Patagonia thought Fitzroy was a volcano, it’s trailing cloud a flame. We all stopped, staggered, took photos. We were stunned to stillness, and it was totally silent. Contrary to the forecast, there wasn’t a breath of wind. There was nothing except for this wild hallucination of dawn, this crazy-painted moment that was passing for reality. And there and then all my silent morning commitments to give up this line of work, to give up mountains, to give up big hills for breakfast – they were blown away in a moment of acute and visceral beauty. This was why people come mountaineering. This was why we’d travelled the length of the globe and spent weeks waiting for the weather. This was what makes the rollercoaster ride that is Patagonia worthwhile.

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We pattered across the glacier, pacing easily down and across the frozen snow to Mermoz. I was happy at having finally bagged some decent alpine photos, but now I had a problem. Climbing Whisky Time would have allowed me to get above and shoot down on Dave and Calum as they worked the moves on the difficult pitches. It would have been easy to get good shots and footage. Now, with them once again trying a new line, I wouldn’t be able to get above. I was back to the dilemma of our last foray: should we go with them, hauling up their ropes in the hope of getting some good footage from below (bumshots, which are never particularly inspiring)? Should we sit on the glacier and shoot what we could with the not-very-long-lens I had brought (extremely limited)? Or should we try and climb an adjacent line to get above them and abseil in (risky – the line wasn’t easy and we’d have to locate them on a massive and complicated face)? In the end there wasn’t much of an option. We dropped down to try to climb Jardines Japoneses, the gully system that led up to the top of their line.

By the time we got to the bottom of our route, the snow had already begun to melt. The steep slope to the face was mush and the bergschrund – the large crevasse at its base – was impassible. We tried a couple of different approaches in a bid to get onto the rock, but no luck. Time was passing. The sun was getting higher and hotter and all the while, Dave and Calum would be making progress. It was increasingly frustrating.

In the end, Ally found a way across the bergschrund and got established on the face. It had taken us an hour just to get onto the route, yet within moments he had to clip in and change into rock boots – another time consuming chore. And as I stood and belayed, I had that horrible feeling that we’d just missed the boat. Twenty minutes earlier and the snow would have been solid, we would have been on the face quickly, and up. But now, peddling mush and having to climb tricky rock rather than easy ice, we were rapidly loosing time.

The second pitch led through a jumbled pile of steep, loose blocks vaguely cemented to the vertical by the thawing snow. I was glad Ally had led it, and glad I was tied to a new rope. Since I became a parent my attention to safety has increased massively, and so when I was looking into support for this trip, I surveyed the market and then approached Beal for one of their Unicore ropes. I thankfully haven’t had to test the technology, but the construction is unique in that it binds the core to the mantle and makes a rope that’s much, much harder to cut. Useful, I thought, as a TV sized block of granite clattered out from my feet and down to the glacier below.

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I reached Ally as a shower of ice rained down on us from above. It was mostly small and it was mostly rime, but the sun was hot and we were about to enter a gully that funneled all the melting debris from the face above. Ally and I took one look at each other. It was immediately clear that continuing wasn’t safe. We had to bail.

If there was disappointment in turning around, it was abated by the satisfaction of having trusted our instincts and made what felt like the right decision. We abseiled off and were soon back on the glacier from where we could see Calum and Dave making slow progress on their line. It was clearly hard. We sat and watched them climb for a while. Then we watched as a ballet of clouds spilled up and over Fitzroy, a mingling interplay of light and shade on the huge granite faces, on the endless snow. This was a place to sit and fantasize, to trace dream lines up runnels of ice, up soaring cracks and immaculate slabs; to imagine what it’d be like to be high on the wall with Patagonia stretching out below. But fantasize is all we could do. We had spent our one and only window of opportunity on getting established on the Jardin, and now the approach slopes to all other routes were too warm, soft and unstable. We simply couldn’t access anything anymore. I couldn’t dispel my frustration. So close, yet so far.

It seems success in Patagonia often happens by the thinnest of margins, requiring a near alchemical combination of weather, luck, skill and good judgement. It made me realize how fortunate we’d been to grab a new line last time we climbed while so many other parties had headed down. We eventually set off back to the tent, feeling sacrilegious for leaving the mountains in such beautiful weather, but there was nothing there for us any more. Just further sunburn, and the insides of my nostrils were already on fire.

The walk down was hard in a hot sun and knee deep slush, but then it was always going to be. We kept quiet and plodded on. Hot hours later we reached the tent and gorged on the fresh, glacial stream melt, pouring icy water into parched bodies. And then we took a kip before packing up, stashing most of our kit and heading back to town.

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The walk down was incredible. With small packs we felt fit and light enough to fly and celebrated by running the steep hill down from Lago de los Tres.

Apart from the short snooze at the lake, we’d been on the go for 18 hours, yet the walk was full of energy and joy. The crystal light of the evening and the sparkling, braided river and mountains all felt like something from another world, somewhere forged in a more perfect time for more perfect eyes than ours.

This was, for me, a moment of pure Patagonian ecstasy. My earlier disappointment had dissolved in the pristine air and I was lost in an ill-deserved jubiliation. Happiness, it seems, can just as readily follow failure. And as Ally and I sat down, exhausted, to a beer and a perfectly sizzled chunk of Argentinian cow, I wondered whether if it’s not the trying that counts after all.

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At 1am, Dave and Calum staggered into the apartment. I thought they were apparitions. After 20 odd hours on the go, they’d made it back before the winds returned to the mountains. Shattered, they’d been turned back from their route with just 60ft to go. Dave’s feet were swollen and Cal had come down with a cold. But the forecast is suggesting that in a few days, the weather will come good and we’ll head back up again.

Patagonia – you couldn’t make this place up.

The Capricious God of Windguru.

Our lives here are ruled by a new entity – a website called Windguru. Every morning we bow down before the Mac in worship, hoping – no, praying – for retribution. We log on, we click the refresh button and, if the almighty is pleased with us and the internet connection is not too sclerotic, the page loads. Windguru, oh how I worship you.

It’s hard not to begin to loose perspective in El Chalten. The town is full of hundreds of climbers and alpinists, all logging on to various forecasts each morning, all hoping for a lull in the hurricane force winds that whip the mountains perhaps 95% of the year. And all of us have been doing it religiously for weeks. There’s nothing else important in the world. Polar vortexes, UK storms, the end of the world… we care about nothing more than the moment of grace that will allow us to go climbing.

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But this year has been bad. The crap season coincides with perhaps record numbers of climbers too, since the past three seasons have been spectacular and lulled everyone into a false sense of climatic security. Some had even begun to speculate that climate change is changing the climate here for the better, which is clearly wishful thinking. Patagonia has a reputation for fierce weather, and it’s not about to relinquish it.

So far, Ally and I have managed two trips in nearly three weeks; Dave and Calum, one. We have a bit of video recorded, a few pictures of the mountains and very little actual climbing material. It’s far less than ideal. We also have two probable new routes in the bag, but there’s some debate over what constitutes a new route in these parts – the mountains are still in that stage of their climbing development where, unlike the Alps, a new route might not be considered a ‘route’ unless it reaches the summit. But as the big lines are claimed and the smaller, technical eliminates begin to be explored, this will change as it has in every climbing range across the world.

Most significant of all, though, is that our chances of a free ascent of the Compressor Route look about as remote as Richard Dawkins worshipping Windguru. As far as successful climbing trips go, this is not one of them.

And yet, and yet… All week we have been performing our morning worship and watching the prospect of a weather window this weekend. The Windguru page has been showing a lull in the wind, which is nothing less than a sacred event in these parts. It’s been showing three days of weather calm enough to go climbing. Only, it’s not been quite that simple. Sunday, the forecast was for a long and stellar weather window, and it led to all sorts of rampant, deluded speculation. We were going to try and free one of the biggest, hardest routes on the biggest mountain here – Royal Flush on Fitzroy. It would be one hell of an achievement, creating one of the hardest free climbs in Patagonia. By Monday, though, the weather window was cracked down the middle by a band of torrential rain, meaning anything as big as Fitzroy was out. By Tuesday the rain had gone but the window had shortened, so we set our sights on Poincenot, the second highest spire in the Fitzroy massif, where we hoped to free either Patonicos Desperados or Whisky Time. These stunning 500m lines have a few pitches of aid climbing which, we hope, might be free climbable at a high grade, again to create one of the hardest routes in Patagonia. Yet by Wednesday, the capricious Windguru had changed again. The rain had gone, the winds had increased a little, but the freezing level had dropped. But by then, we were packed.

And now, as I write this early Thursday morning, we are ready for three days in the mountains. This morning’s forecast is not exactly great for hard free-climbing. We need a near mythical combination of several elements:  a) low enough wind to actually be able to climb, b) no rain, and c) for it not too to be too cold to touch the rock. Today we have a) and c), but it’s raining, which is clearly no good. Tomorrow we have a) and b), but it’s going to be below freezing on the wall and therefore, purgatory for the fingers. On Saturday we currently have b) and c) forecast, but we can only hope the forecast’s wrong or that our east facing wall will be sufficiently out of the wind. Then on Sunday the wind returns and it’ll be bloody cold, so that’s when we hope to walk out. The near miss of elements, the interplay of this being perfect while that is suboptimal, is incredibly frustrating. We’re in a range where climbing is possible only by the slimmest of margins, and it plays havoc with your nerves.

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But basically, later today we’re going to try and go climbing. It’s looking like it’ll be hard and pretty uncomfortable, but we’re bored of easy and nice. We’ve been hanging out in El Chalten long enough to have itchy feet. And besides, when the Windguru throws you the crumbs of such a forecast, you can only be grateful. Onwards and upwards to the great spires in the sky… we hope.

New Routes and First Ascents

The alarm went off at 4am and I looked out of the cave to see stars. There was hardly any wind. We were going climbing after all. I felt the funny mix of the alpine start – the contrary pulls of adrenaline and exhaustion – and shoveled cold, watery oats into a body that was indifferent to breakfast at this hour. I had a second cup to make sure I wouldn’t repeat the low-cal experiment of the last trip, then crawled out through the dirt of the cave mouth and took in the first glow of dawn on the mountains. Spectacular. There were already headtorches on the path as others began the slog up to the col, but we weren’t to be much behind.

It was two hours of hard graft to reach the pass, but the climb was so beautiful in the morning light that the effort barely registered. The only frustration was not being able to stop and take photos. Since this was the first climbing day of the trip and everyone was bent on getting something done, all I’d be able to do is catch what I could as we went.

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We reached the col around the same time the sun began to fade behind the high stratus stretching across the sky. The weather was already changing. But it was spectacular, with the glacier falling away beneath and the immaculate granite walls of Guillaumet rising up to our right. We roped up to cross the glacier, then Dave and Calum set off. A few moments later they came back. There was so much fresh, unconsolidated snow that going anywhere without a track meant wading through thigh deep powder, which is both slow and exhausting. More critically, Cal had dug a pit to test for avalanche danger and found the layers of snow completely unbounded. It was far too dangerous to try and go anywhere.

Our plans had to change and so we looked up towards the immediately accessible walls of Guillaumet rising above. Being amongst the few routes in the whole of Patagonia that were in condition and accessible, the classic easy ice gullies around the Amy- Vidailhet were absolutely packed with teams. But around these lines, completely untouched, was an awful lot of unclimbed rock and ice.

Dave and Calum looked around for the most imposing line and set off for a wall to our right. It was perpendicular to the main ridge, meaning that the best pictures I could shoot would be from section immediately left of the Amy, on the ridge itself; a section, excitingly, with no routes in the guidebook and where a series of incredible mixed lines ran. We would have to go new routing, ostensibly, for work.

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We were all pretty excited to finally be getting climbing, and headed off to our respective challenges. And ours was amazing. The climbing was perfect, never too hard and never too run out, but always engaging and fun. The rock was perfect, the ice runnels ran just where they were needed, and it culminated in a crux move right at the top. For me, it was a rare opportunity to get stuck into some proper winter mixed climbing, which I love. And at the end of it, we had what we think is a new route. It’s unnamed at the moment, but goes at around Scottish VI, 6.

Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky on the photography front. Ally and I had positioned ourselves on the face for dramatic, wide shots of Cal and Dave on an enormous wall with Patagonia stretched to the distance, but the mountain had other ideas. I was hoping for the sort of shot you’d make a poster out of, or a sizzling advert, but the vagaries of new routing pushed Calum and Dave into a corner beyond our view. It wasn’t their intended line either, but when the route goes one way and not the other, you really don’t have much choice. They had a fantastic time with some top quality climbing up to Scottish VIII, 8, but it wasn’t what I’d hoped for on the image front.

Ally and I reached the top of our route as the weather began to turn. We’d had a remarkably wind free day, and although it began to warm as we climbed, there was nothing too threatening in the sky. It was when we reached the ridge that the wind began gusting for change and the clouds started to engulf us, so thoughts of the summit of Guilliamet were abandoned in favour of a swift retreat. But this was what I wanted – conditions on the turn. I want to depict the reality of Patagonian mountaineering, and that reality is often one of dramatic weather. So with Ally tugging at the leash to get down and me wanting more time for photos, we negotiated our way back down the empty mountain. We got some dramatic stuff, but we were nearly the last people off.

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The wind at the col was high and the clouds were descending. Whirlwinds of spindrift whipped along the glacier, warning of things to come. We hurriedly packed our bags and descended, scampering from the forbidden realm just as the gates began to snap shut again. We’d been lucky and had an incredible day.

I reached the bivvi late after taking some timelapse sequences of incoming clouds, and Calum and Dave had scarpered. Their site was more exposed than ours and, with the youth keen to further indulge his habit for the local condensed milk, they’d waited for Ally to tell him they were leaving. Ally and I had a few moments of deliberation before deciding that our bivvi was actually rather nice and we’d rather another night in the mountains. It’s not like we are granted much time up here anyway, and I’m a sucker for time up high.

The next day we headed back down and into town. It was a long walk but the difference couldn’t have been starker to my previous return from the hills. My body may have ached and my feet and shoulders may have burned, but there was no staggering, no corpse-like expression, no preference to die rather than take another step. Patagonia may be big and hard on the body, but it seems I’m getting fitter. Fit enough, I don’t yet know. It all depends on what the next weather window brings…

Run For the Hills!

Bed is a wonderful place, and I stayed there for days. I‘d made myself ill with our little foray and didn’t have much choice but to rest, but it had been worth it. Some shots in the bag, the mountains formally introduced and a sense, now, of what we’d signed up for. Patagonia was big.

But for me, it was bed rest in the small and pleasant town of El Chalten. It’s a proper end of the world type place, a young town where for every building there is a structure unfinished, or a plot of weedy, undeveloped land. There are caravans and trailers where houses will one day stand and the place has a itinerant feel as if, perhaps, it might blow away in a gale. Which of course it might. But in high summer the town is in full swing, full of outdoor types drawn by the incredible mountains that fence us in on every side. The trekking from Chalten is of a different world order; wild, raw, and insanely beautiful. And the climbing… well, the climbing needs no introduction here.

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In El Chalten, it’s rare that a tree tops ten metres. Rarer still is the fool who builds their door to the west, the direction of the prevailing gale. It’s also a town of many dogs, all of which sport a the odd look of the permanently blow-dried. I’ve wondered about these dogs, trying to work out whether it’s better to be the low-profile sausage dog with squat legs a belly reassuringly close to the earth, or the larger, stouter German Shepherd: heavier, but prone to catching more wind.

My week of illness coincided with a week of poor weather, of which there is an plentitude in Patagonia. Scott – an American Rab athlete who has spent much time here – taught us how to interpret the forecasts and wowed at wind speed figures he’d never seen before. “I’m looking forward to seeing what a 44 looks like,” he’d said. What it looked like was a day when the roof might blow off our well built accommodation; a day when a trip to the Waffleria and Chocolateria might require ropes and belays to move through town. I exaggerate a little, but not much. It still looked like a day where an ill-caught plastic bag could tear off your head as it hurtled down the street.

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Fortunately for the sanity of the others, there were days when the wind wasn’t hoolie-force and the rain wasn’t horizontal, and on these days they made the most of the climbing on the cliffs and boulders around town. And during one of these forays Dave bumped into David Lama, the young Swiss alpinist responsible for the free Compressor route. According to Lama, the jet stream is too far north this year, so we can expect a crap month in Patagonia. If he’s right, our dreams of freeing the Compressor are toast.

It’s impossible not to ruminate on the accuracy of his prognosis. We tell ourselves that anything can happen here, that the weather is a crazy, unpredictable thing, that maybe he’s just wrong, that maybe we’ll get lucky…. and on and on. My fear, though, is that if anyone is well placed to make an assessment on our chances on the Compressor, it’s probably the guy who spent several years of his life on the project.

A few more days of horrendous weather passed, the freezing level dropped and in the rare moments when the clouds parted we saw mountains covered with fresh snow. But there was also a growing buzz in town about the slim window forecast for the end of the week. As the time grew closer, guidebooks were pored over and plans discussed. We decided there was no chance of finding dry rock with the mountains this white, so we looked for hard mixed lines to repeat, or pondered some of the many blanks walls in the guidebook. And then, in hope of getting onto a big route on Mermoz in the Fitzroy group, we packed heavy bags ready for an early start on Thursday morning.

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The walk into Piedra del Praille in the Rio Electrico valley was the first time that all of us had trekked in together, and the first time Dave and Calum had set out into the mountains proper. Dave had surgery on his ankle just a couple of months before and found the walk in tough and  painful, and Calum and I both had blisters. But more worrying than this was that the forecast was already wrong. High winds roared down the valley and heavy snow was raking skies that should have been clear.

The climb to the bivvi spot at Pedra Negra was a climb right into the storm. Snow blew in crazy eddies and the wind harried us in gusts. But somehow, hood up, protected from the elements, it was engrossing to be climbing in such bad weather. There was no view to distract and no visible goal to head towards, so it was eyes down to the path and an interminable, slow plod upwards.

Because we hadn’t taken a tent, we decided to stop an hour short of Piedra Negra and stay beneath the snow line. It looked horrific further up. Instead, in what on a good day would have been an idyllic meadow, we found some large boulders and took what shelter we could. Dave and Calum camped beside a huge block while Ally and I excavated a cave from beneath a very low slung rock. Within an hour we’d created a brilliant, if low roofed hovel, well protected from the wind and snow and with enough space for us to live, cook and sleep. It was dirt-bag living, to be sure, and required an undignified squirm to get into, but it was remarkably cosy inside.

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The original plan had been to use the afternoon to go high, check out our route and shoot some pictures, but the weather precluded all of this. It was snowy, cold and foul. Even so, a long line of alpinists plodded up hill all afternoon, heading higher into the maelstrom to camp in readiness for the weather window we all hoped would arrive in the morning. But it was looking unlikely. If the forecast is wrong for one day, we wondered, would it be wrong for all the days beyond? We just didn’t know.

A Profound State of Disrepair

At 5.30am, thanks to my daughter’s pre-dawn conditioning program, I found myself wake suddenly from the deep, deep doze of the dead. Beyond the cave dawn was firing up for something spectacular across the Fitroy massif, and so before I’d time to object to myself, I was up and out.

Having set up a camera for a timelapse, I woke Ally for some unpleasantly early modelling work. No-one looks their best at that time – particularly after a long stint of travel and hard mountain graft – but Ally moved with an Alpinist’s efficiency and stoicism. Adding to his morning’s indignity was the fact that I’d lost my voice and had been reduced to whistling at him to give directions. What a dog’s arse of morning for the poor guy.

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It didn’t take long for the sun to rise above the layer of high clouds streaming in from the west, so we retired to the cave for our meagre breakfast. I looked at the diminishing food supply with an uptight paranoia: I know what happens when I run out of fuel, and I could see that today I’d run out whilst still high on a mountain. I looked forlornly at the dry, two day old crust of bread and saw yet another lesson in hardship.

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Beyond the cave window, the famous Patagonian cloud-scape was in full swing; long lenticulars arcing the sky in a painting done by wind. They looked beautiful and bruised, and we didn’t know what they meant. Incoming storm? Innocent high altitude cloud? We were too new here to know.

We discussed our options. The sleep had left me well enough for another attempt at Mojon Rojo and I was keen to get more shooting done. But Patagonian weather systems have a reputation, and neither of us wanted to get caught out when the winds returned. Countering this was the generally reliable forecast which suggested the weather wouldn’t turn until the afternoon. We discussed it some more, then I put down the crust. It was no longer breakfast. I needed it, now, as lunch. We were going up.

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Re-climbing our footsteps was so much easier with a body that had some snooze in the tank. I was still coughing and moving slowly, but each step didn’t carry the deep existential trauma of the previous day. We made good progress as the cloud increased, and at the bottom of the summit pyramid I set up a camera to make another timelapse of the incredible skies. I wanted to see how these crazy clouds moved; to warp time to see them flowing across Patagonia. And to do this, I pulled out a new camera that Garmin had given me for the trip. Called the Virb, it’s a bit like the GoPro, but with a screen. It also does timelapse.

The summit climb was easy scrambling through granite blocks and gullies and snow ramps, and was incredibly good fun. We pulled onto the ridge and the views we were hoping for opened out beneath and all around – across to the monstrous bulk of Fitzroy, over to the terrifying objective of Cerro Torre, and down-down-down to the snaking moraines and glaciers of the Torre Valley. To our surprise there was no wind whatsoever, and we congratulated ourselves on reaching our first Patagonian summit in such conditions. Who’d have thought we could stand up here in leisure, hanging around, taking pictures and video without feeling cold or scared or hurrying to get back down?

We spent a very pleasant hour or so before I’d exhausted all the photographic options I could find. I even managed to shoot various bits of Rab kit to brief, which was unexpected. Usually, on shoots like this, ideas drawn up in the office get shredded by the whims of the weather. You just can’t demand someone gets down to their baselayer in a storm, and stopping to change jacket in freezing, gale force winds is to put your safety at risk. All you can do is accept that the mountains are directing the shoot, be flexible and work in tandem with conditions. But I like that. It’s humbling. I have to work with low expectations and, if I get what I want, I leave feeling both lucky and grateful. And they’re two lovely things to feel every once in a while.

On the way down, with the shoot dispatched and the summit safely behind us, the deep tiredness returned. Basic mental functions ceased and we climbed the steeper sections with way more caution than would be the norm for such easy terrain. Whenever irrationality induced me to hurry, I remembered the rudimentary rescue service in Patagonia. The ethic here is of self sufficiency: get into trouble, it’s up to you to get out of it.

Weirdly, that’s another thing I love: I love the square seating of responsibility on your shoulders. I love that you can’t take leave of your senses and hope someone will winch you out with a helicopter if your judgment is wrong. It’s such a refreshing change from the outsourcing of authority so common back home; our litigious cultural norm, our covering of backs, our culture of blame. Taking responsibility is infinitely life affirming.

We reached the cave at around noon and finished off the last flakes of ham, cheese and bread. It was hardly lunch. I was already in quite deep calorific deficit and feeling weak, but we still had 10 miles and 1200m of descent to town. And I couldn’t escape the peculiar irony of our situation: the kind people at Cliff Bar had sent us nearly 10 kilos of bars, shots and energy gels for this trip, all of which we’d left in Chalten in preparation for Cerro Torre. It shouldn’t have been like this at all.

After packing with a slow weariness, we set off carefully onto the loose terrain of the moraine, descending the gravel and boulders that had taken so much effort to climb. By the time we reached the bottom I was struggling again, too short on energy to correct the little slips that now sent me straight onto my arse. We reached the lake and crossed the river and stopped to change from boots to trainers. I could barely undo my laces. “I’m spent,” I said to Ally, and he handed me a chocolate bar.

This has happened to me once before, in Tibet. There, walking around Mt Kailash and similarly ill, I was so reduced in fuel that I could take a boiled sweet and feel how long it’s energy lasted. One sweet equaled two minutes walking, then I’d crash. I would calculate inclines in how many sugar drops I’d need to get to the top. And here, suddenly, in trainers, with a heavy pack on my back and a bar of chocolate in my belly, I was on fire.

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We set off down the riverbed at high speed, jumping from boulder to boulder as the weather began to close in around the high mountains above us. I was tired, but feeling great. We practically ran the hour back to the main path, then sped on through the ancient forests and beautiful aquatic meadows where crystal streams reflected the growing storm in the skies. I was feeling incredibly fit; confident, suddenly, that all the training had actually been worth it, and that this wasn’t such a stupid thing to be trying after all. But then I crashed again.

We must have covered about two thirds of the way back before things went pear shaped. It was as if my body knew that the closer we got to town, the less it had to hold on, the less it needed to produce adrenaline or whatever else it was that had kept me moving. And so the struggle began. Ally was off to the distance at the first gentle incline and I was left alone in the woods, returning to that place of slow, simple efficiency where everything was dedicated towards forward movement. I stopped increasingly often. I tried the remaining chocolate, some water, more rest, but nothing worked.

There came a point where, just a few miles from El Chalten, I seriously considered camping. My body was in revolt, my shoulders burning beneath the pack weight, my feet protesting the miles in light footwear, my legs turning to jelly and my temperature and cough increasing in severity. It became a balancing act between the need to stop and the difficulty of getting going again. While moving I was stoned dull on endorphins, yet when I stopped the effect wore off. Getting back on my feet was excruciating.

The final few metres to the roadhead were walked in some psychedelic daze. I wasn’t stumbling, quite, but I wasn’t moving very impressively either. My throat was razor lined and breathing was painful. I was also, I realized, far from the first or the last person to re-enter Chalten in such a profound state of disrepair. This place has a long history of destroying mountaineers, reducing grown men to an infantile state of stagger and drool.

It took two empanadas – or local pasties – to restore my humanity and give me the energy to walk the final mile through town. The transformation was incredible. Could all of that difficulty have been down to just food? I thought of Richard Parks – the man who has just completed a fast, solo, unsupported trek to the south pole – and now understood why he’d advised me to undertake ‘deprivation training’ before this trip. You learn so much from reaching those limits, and I already treasure those lessons. They feel like the missing pieces in my training plan for Patagonia and as a result, I feel much better prepared.

It sounds counter intuitive to say it, but I couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the trip.

Learning of limits on Patagonian summits

In spite of less than five hours sleep in the previous 48, I woke early, still conditioned by my daughter to see in the dawn. And I didn’t feel great. The cold I’d been getting over was returning, and coupled with too little sleep and not enough food from the previous days, I was pretty wasted. But when James McHaffie and Tim Neil turned up with the news that this was only the second time they’d seen Cerro Torre out of the cloud in their two weeks here, we knew we had to go high. It was deceptive, arriving here with such stunning weather, and it’d be easy to be complacent.

Instead, Ally and I packed our bags for a two day ascent of a small, 2163m peak called Mojon Rojo. Overlooking Cerro Torre on the far side of the valley, it offered a straightforward approach, a bit of glacier travel and a patch of mixed scrambling to get to the summit. And after so much sitting around, it looked like a worthy stretch of the legs.

What wasn’t so worthy was the amount of camera gear we had to take. It’s going to be one of the biggest problems on the trip, this, because mountaineering is a game ruled by two words: fast, and light. But load me up with 10 kilos of glass, metal and electronics in addition to my climbing kit and I quickly become both heavy and slow. Thankfully I have Ally with me, and this guy is a machine. He lives in Chamonix and spends his spare time pounding up and down big mountains at high speeds. If I have legs, then he has tree trunks. And without him, there’s not a chance I could work up here.

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I did however make the mistake of sending him out for food while I sorted through piles of cameras, memory cards, batteries and tripods. Ally, you see, is not only a very strong Alpinist, but he can survive on air if needs be. I, on the other hand, get very grumpy very quickly when not fed at regular intervals, and if the food is not sufficient then I grind to a halt quite soon. And so by the time I’d stuffed my bags with overnight kit and strapped on all manner of tripods and sliders, Ally returned with a few pieces of ham and a small slab of cheese, a bit of bread and lots of chocolate. One look told me it wasn’t enough, but with my tired brain I failed to appreciate how much extra I’d need to make it safely into and back out of the mountains.

Our first true taste of the Patagonian wilderness was spectacular but crowded with trekkers from town. We powered on up past them, steamed on through the forests and the paradise glades, and all the while I nearly managed to keep up with Ally. But the bags were heavy. On top of all the camera gear was our bivvi and climbing kit, and we each topped 20 kilos. Yet still it felt good; good to be out in a truly pristine environment, good to be moving, good to finally be heading up to a Patagonian peak after so much planning and waiting and anticipation.

But by the time we turned off the main path to follow a bouldery river bed towards the peaks, things began to catch up with me. The week before departure hadn’t gone well on the sleep front and I’d still not fully recovered from a Christmas virus. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when all of a sudden I began to slow down and struggle, but at first I put it down to the sun; a harsh, ozone-hole sun that bleached thoughts opaque and fried rationality. But then, after a moment in the shade, I cast aside sunstroke and began to worry about fitness instead, beginning a long and weary battle with my mind and its litany of self doubt.

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The river led quickly up into a far less friendly landscape than the water meadows and forests of below. Mean, black cliffs reared up and we reached the harsh but beautiful turquoise lake of Lago Sucia. Above, the Glaciar Rio Blanco flowed from Fitzroy and Poincenot, disintegrating as it reached the cliffs and tumbling in dramatic serac falls into the lake. It was an incredible place.

Our route led up a steep, loose, bouldery slope of horrible consistency, and here I struggled the most. Low on health and food and sleep and feeling increasingly weak, a battle broke out in my mind as I desperately searched for a reason for my weakness. Had I not trained enough? Should I have turned down work before departure to leave more time for getting fitter? Should I have seen less of my family and spent more time on the bike, in the mountains, down the wall? But behind it all was the darkest fear of all – was I, perhaps, just not up to this? Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Thrown myself in too deep, too dangerously, in a fit of over-enthusiastic arrogance? What the hell was I doing trying to follow and film the hardest alpine route in the world?

Eventually, I ran out of energy for thinking. There were just no spare calories for the brain, Instead I entered a place where everything became dedicated to efficiency, my experience being one of absolute bare essentials. One foot in front of the other. Hands on knees. Breathe. Choose the next foot placement from the unstable earth. Place it. Push. Move slowly up. And with this pared down awareness came a clarity. Be kind to yourself, the clarity suggested. You’re not well (I wasn’t – there was blood in my cough). You haven’t slept properly in over a week. You haven’t eaten enough. Of course this is hard – you’re carrying a big weight up a massive hill. It was the turning point of the climb for me.

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I reached the bivvi cave at 1700m to find Ally had long been there. It was still over 400m to the summit, but we could leave our sleeping bags and stoves and reduce our weight a little. Now that the doubts had receeded, there was no question about not going on. I had Caff and Tim’s words lodged in the motivation centre of my head. Good weather in Patagonia doesn’t come often.

From the cave we moved onto the snow, following the footsteps of two girls who, climbing fast and light, had passed us long ago. And then the mountains really began to open up around us. We were so close to the legendary granite walls of Patagonia, the huge faces of Poincenot and Fitzroy, and everything was going gold in the afternoon sun. But more than anything we had to get to the summit of Mojon Rojo and film Cerro Torre. This peak is such a feature of the trip that I needed as much footage of it as possible, and from as many different angles. And so, roping up to cross the glacier, we plodded upwards at my maximum, slow pace. If I wanted to hurry, I couldn’t. It was all I could do to keep moving.

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Near the top of the glacier it became clear that I wasn’t in a fit state to make it up the final 150m rock pyramid to the summit before the sun went down. Instead, we contoured across to a col which I hoped would give us the views we wanted. I was so close to my limit that I daren’t look up to see how far it was, and concentrated instead on my feet. I had to stop every now and again to cough. Still flecks of red. I’m going to get a chest infection at this rate, I thought, but it was too late to turn back.

I only realized quite how much I had invested in reaching that col when I made it and looked over towards Cerro Torre to see a great cliff in the way. If I’d been able to shout my frustration, I would have. Instead, I heaved, suddenly gripped by the fear that all of this had been a terrible waste of time, energy and health. But after a moment’s deliberation we set out back into our tracks to contour around to another col where we’d find the view we were looking for. Ally took the lead, breaking trail through the crusty snow, and I followed with every last effort I had. Walking the flat was fine, it turned out: it was the slightest incline which killed me. And, naturally enough, there was a small climb up the last few metres to the edge.

I didn’t quite appreciate what was happening to me when I stood on the crest and looked at the 1000m drop to the Torre glacier, but I knew I was cold. I was shivering uncontrollably, my hands and feet suddenly freezing. My teeth were chattering and I was breathing in urgent gasps. And yet I had to get the camera out and start filming. I couldn’t feel my fingers. Everything was agony. This, I remembered, is what’s so bloody hard shooting in the mountains. This is why it’s such a niche job.

And then it dawned on me that my body had gone into shock. All my blood had gone back to the core, leaving my extremities cold. “I think I’ve gone into shock,” I whispered to Ally, discovering that I’d also lost my voice. We pulled down out of the wind and he put on a brew.

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The way down was magical, windless and calm. I was spent to the point I’ve only once been before, but happy. It’d been an incredible journey to my physical limits, yet we’d never been in a difficult or dangerous situation. It’s not often you get to push yourself right to the edge, and I came down that evening feeling infinitely better prepared for the rest of the trip. Knowing the warning signs; knowing when to stop and put more fuel in the tank. Knowing that I can go further than I’d have thought on ill health, but not as far as I might like. And I came to appreciate as we climbed into our glorious, warm, horizontal sleeping bags that night, this was the real value of our near ascent of Mojon Rojo. Maybe I would turn out to be up to this after all.