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.

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