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.
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.
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.
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.
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.