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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.