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.
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.
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.