Carolyn Davidson and I had just returned from a successful mission on Aguja Rafael Juarez having climbed the stellar line called Coralo in the Torre Valley. Just as we got back El Chaltén the weather was breaking immediately into another climbing window. With one day to prepare we packed our bags and began the trek back into the mountains, this time up to base camp Piedra Negra, on the north side of the Fitz group. Our plan was to climb a route of Rolando Garibotti and Bean Bowers called Mate Porro y Todo lo Demás, 900m 6c.
|The North Pillar of Fitz Roy|
The weather was a bit stormy as we approached Piedra Fraile, a small refugio located in the Valley below Piedra Negra. Merely out of curiosity I asked Carolyn if she had ever experienced the Patagonian winds because I certainly hadn't. Without knowing, I had just predicted the forecast for our next few days.
The winds struck us as we were hiking up the steep hill to the base camp. I could only hope that the night would settle the storm and the weather window would prevail as the meteorgram had predicted. Once at Piedra Negra we located some stashed climbing gear which our friend had left for us under some rocks, set up a tent and fell asleep.
We awoke at 1:30 am and the air was still. We prepared a quick breakfast and began the long approach to the base of the route by headlamp, leaving at 2 am.
|Fitz Roy as seen from the hill where we got our first taste of the Patagonian winds|
We reached the base of the route by 8:30 after having weaved our way across complex terrain throughout the night. The morning was chilly and the sky was filtered with a thin cloud layer. A tent was set up at a rock formation near the base of the pilar but we could not spot any climbers.
I began the first leading block of what I estimate to be about 10 pitches, but I can't be certain because I was linking pitches as well as using a mix of short fixing, free climbing, and french freeing whenever possible. Carolyn was following on ascenders and carrying the pack; we were basically speed climbing. Soon enough the dihedral ended and Carolyn took over the lead. Until this moment I was so invested in the climbing that I hadn't noticed the clouds pouring over the peaks of the Torres from the south. Now that I was belaying my heart rate slowed and I became cold. As I changed from my rock shoes back into my approach shoes I felt the freezing wind bite my feet.The next anchor was located on an arête that was perfectly exposed to the wind. Carolyn aided the thin and technical crack with frozen hands as I stood shivering and exposed on the ledge. The clouds quickly engulfed the entire mountain and snow flurries whipped past in strong gusts. I yelled up at her but she could not hear, "Carolyn we need to bail! The weather is worsening!" I waited for a response but all sound was overtaken by the wind. My only option was to meet her at the next belay so I struggled my way up the overhang on jumars. Once I arrived at the ledge Carolyn's calm rational reassured me that all would be well if we could make it to the bivy ledge. I scrambled up the gully with a settled mind, focused on finding a protected bivy spot which I could barricade with rocks. The storm clouds were dark and the wind was persistent but our -20 sleeping bag and warm boiled water from our jet boil made for a rather comfortable sleep. On the bright side, the storm clouds painted an amazing sunset, and there was no better place to view it than the north pillar of Fitz Roy.
|Beautiful but dramatic sunset|
The next morning maintained the chill and windspeed from the day before and we were faced with a tough decision. If we pushed on we risked facing the unknown weather so we decided it would be best to bail. By 4 pm we were back at the base of the pilar and the day had transformed into a beautiful and calm day. We were devastated. Not only was it frustrating that we had wasted our time rappelling during the best weather conditions but we watched as another party (a group of Spaniards) casually climbed up the route. They had waited out the wind started up sometime around midday.
|Carolyn Taking over the lead at the break of day|
|The full moon setting after a bright night of climbing|
I traversed the ledge around to the north side of the pillar in search of a line that would be protected from the southern winds. I chose a line called Gringos Perdidos, 6c, which follows crack systems of varying sizes up to a small roof. It was impossible to see what lied beyond the roof so I chose to climb a flared groove that veered left into an offwith dihedral. Only later did I find out that I had linked Gringos Perdidos with another variation, and in doing so found an entirely new crux section. I was stoked; at the top of the North Pillar being challenged with technical free climbing with the sun at my back.
We reached the snowy summit around 5 pm, so proud and happy of our revenge ascent. There was no time to relax however, for we still had the entire decent, and descents are often more challenging than the climb. Just to our luck our rope became caught as we pulled our very first rappel, winding itself around a chock stone high above in an icy chimney. It was critical that we save it as we still had some 20 plus pitches to descend. Carefully I pulled myself upward on the lodged rope while squeezing up the chimney about 30 feet to where it was stuck. I was surprised by how easily the rope dislodged but realized that it would be an ideal location to build a knot anchor. With some rap cord I tied a small not and wedged it between the chock stone and the wall. Then rappelled back down to Carolyn. Our rope gave us trouble on every single rappel, fortunately we didn't have to climb up again to retrieve it. We quickly caught up to the Spaniards, they must have waited on the bivy ledge at pitch 16 all day. We made it to the base before dark, slipped into our bivy sac and fell asleep awaiting a long and tenuous hike out on empty stomachs the next day