Sunday, January 27, 2008

the patagonia trip: P-Town Rock

The morning weather would have been the perfect compliment to an evil wizard's castle.  Regardless, we resolved to accomplish something.  At the least we could cache gear at the base of the route.

At the crest of the talus we donned every layer and fought the wind to stay grounded.  Snow fell, blinded and wet us.  We ate and waited.  Why not try to climb the first pitches?  We could fix the ropes and have a head start for our next try if the tempest persisted.

I led the first pitch, stopping and starting many times as my body vascilated between warming up and shutting down.  Then Voytek jogged up behind me and led the next pitch from my hanging belay.

Voytek was a hundred feet above when I heard an explosion shake the valley.

By this point we were decently conditioned to the sound of rockfall and avalanches in the amphitheater.  I worried more when we first arrived in the high valley.  One particular morning, I was seized from sleep by a sound like a building falling down or a train crashing.  I sprang out from our boulder on a wave of emergency reaction.  I knew we couldn't be in the direct path of any rock fall, but worried the shaking ground might shift our bivy rock, and that would be it for Los Americanos.  The panic subsided to memory and I felt more hardened to these geological thunder storms.

But what I was hearing from my hanging stance amid snow, rain and Patagonian wind was bigger and closer than what I had come to know.  I turned my head a fraction and saw it.  The sky blotted out as a monument's worth of rock shot from the Central Tower and bombed a swath of ground to our right with tub sized boulders that spun and bounced in the slow motion of disaster time.

I yee-hawed into the aftermath to rid the shock of what I'd witnessed and I looked down too see that Dave was safe, scurrying around to find better cover.  I imagined what it'd look like if I saw that cloud coming down on me.

Voytek finished the pitch and we descended to ABC where we cooked endless dishes of the last bits of virtually all of our foods.

We ate polenta with veggie soup sauce.  We drank Zucar.  We ate pasta with parmesan.  We drank Zucar.  We ate a milk peanutbutter and apricot dish of Voytek's devizing.  We drank chai tea.

I went to bed at 8pm and slept deeply.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

the patagonia trip: Dave Turner

We woke at 5am to dubious weather, ate breakfast at Voytek's "villa" in the talus, and decided to postpone our decision for the day's action to see what would happen with the weather.  Back to bed.

A few hours later Voytek rousted Dave and I and pointed to a beautiful sky.  It was later than I would have liked to attempt the route, and I was really enjoying the additional rest.  With Voytek's support we decided to put it off.  It could use some time to dry anyway.

Later in the day, which blossomed to the warmest and sunniest of days, we met Dave Turner.  Dave had been on his portaledge soloing a new route on Escudo for 34 days.  It was the first grade VII onsight solo in history.

Every time we ventured into the high valley, we were comforted by his California-eye-in-the-sky presence.  Where's Waldo?  Where's the fly on that big granite wall?  Ah, relief, there it is!

The evening Dave and I masqueraded on Taller Del Sol, we heard a woop! waft across the valley.  "I bet that's Dave topping out," my Dave told me and we wooped back as hard as we could into the big void between us and Escudo.

Last night, as we dined with Voytek, we again heard celebratory yells, this time from the base of the wall.  Dave had just touched down after a full day of descending.  We all yelled back, and I yee-hawed to let him know there was another American there to witness his landing.

What a weird meeting to finally put form to legend as Dave, Voytek and I greeted Dave, who was already in conversation with Raul and Lucas of Santiago and the Dutch Guys, Gerke and Marten, atop a moraine.  Dave and I were among the least experienced in the group, but felt we might offer some American familiarity to the contact deprived climber.

Dave was tall and lanky with huge hand and feet and smaller chest and shoulders.  He said fuck a lot and spoke about his rope access work on wind mills and about the pot laws in CA.

Dave told us he had heard our yells the night before, and to some level we all felt a part of his experience, which Steve Sneider had dubbed the biggest adventure since Shackelton's.

"Why are none of us climbing?"  I exclaimed of the beautiful day around us.

"Well, I have an excuse," Dave replied.

We all laughed and felt genuinely good.

Friday, January 25, 2008

the patagonia trip: The Wake Up Call

"Hey, Dan and Dave," said a muffled voice.

I blinked to clear sand from my eyes and peeked from my alpine hangover.

Clearer now, "Wake up Americans.  It's time to climb Taller Del Sol."

When the contrast balanced I could see out from our dark hole and saw Voytek's smiling face.

"What do you mean?  That was yesterday.  We're out of food."  I told him.

He explained that he had food from the rest of his team who had taken off, done with Paine, having slapped the top of each of the three towers.

"Once you obtain your goals," Voytek told us, "it can be very hard to seek new ones."

But Voytek had not been satisfied by the climbing quality on his share of the South African expedition and wanted a last stand.  He wanted a route that was excellent for the climbing, not strictly the easist way to bag another summit.  He wanted Taller del Sol.  The route everyone was talking about, but few pursued as they focused on bigger prizes.

I beamed with gratitude and enthusiasm.  Then Voytek, the Polish South African angel, silouetted by clear sky, sauntered off to find a bivvy spot of his own.


Thursday, January 24, 2008

the patagonia trip: Attempt on Taller del Sol

We planned to sleep until 5am, but I couldn't.  Maybe it had something to do with the coffee I drank with the Dutch or maybe I was just buzzing with anticipation.  I looked out from my nook under our boulder, watched the stars and day-bright moon, and found high pressure every time I checked my watch-barometer.  Finally, I could take no more and rose at 4am.  The towers, Escudo, Fortulessa and Tridente shined by the moonlight.  The air was still and comfortable.  Life was perfect.

I woke Dave and made the case for getting up a little early.  I can't sleep, and...come on.  Then we made breakfast with the last of our cereal and some tea, and crawled up the talus to the base of the route.

It was light by the time we reached the top, and cold.  We took our time to survey the wall and find our route.  We needed the day to warm enough for our fingers to be nimble.

With much uncertainty of the route start, Dave racked up and led towards a promising crack system.  On our second pitch, Ivo and his friend traversed below, on their way to climb the Monzino Route.

Ivo had to leave Paine for work the day Dave and I did the Monzino. He said he cried having to leave on a calm, clear day.  Then he saw the forecast for the big break in the weather, snubbed his work and returned with ten more days of food.  We were glad to see him.

We yelled down as he passed below and asked if he knew where Taller Del Sol started. He called up in his broken English that he thought the route was further to our right, but he wasn't certain. 

Dave and I decided to trend right when we could.

Then Marten and Gerka passed below us.  Marten climbed Taller Del Sol on a previous trip, so we knew he would set us straight. "It's over to the right side of this pillar," he pointed, "but you're definitely on something, so you should continue if you can."

As they disappeared, on their way to climb Monzino, Dave reached a blank section on our line.  We could go no further.  He set a good nut and lowered to my stance atop the first pitch of easy slab.

It was a perfect day and here we were, all false starts and where do we go?

We pulled the bail rope and the tip got jammed in a crack above me.  I raged in my head.

We rappelled our free rope to solid ground where I could throw my wrath into the line.  I whipped, pulled and yarded.  With some heavy bouncing, it came free.  I took the minor victory, pulled myself out of my frustration and aimed to enjoy the rest of the day.  As late as it was, we had missed our last chance to top out, but at least we could do some climbing.

I racked and started the first pitch of easy slab. Then there was a tricky pitch of 5.10 with a crux streaming with water.  I didn't know if I was capable of the moves, but kept extending myself into the next setion and somehow succeeded from stance to stance.  I was charged as I belayed Dave.

The next pitch was a little easier, 5.9, but still very wet. I took my time getting through the crux, then made good progress to the belay, ending the pitch a little short of the streaming wet fixed anchor.  I was ready for Dave to take the next pitch.

Dave climbed the 5.10+ offwidth pitch with typical no-big-deal style.  I figured offwidths are a matter of applying requisite energy, so I opened the valves and let it all come streaming out like a car lot blower man.  Like the blower man, I didn't go anywhere gracefully.  I'm sure it would have been easier without a pack, and I did follow clean in the end, but I'm not sure I would have led it smoothly as Dave had.

Now Dave was warmed up and he happily embarked on the next 5.9 pitch.

It is interesting how one's mood shifts between leading and following. You might expect worry to come under the pressure of being on lead, rather than while enjoying the safety of a belay stance. However, it is at the belay stance where you have the time and mental space to consider the commitment of your position.  I suppose experience helps you recognize the swing and take it more in stride.  I still get the unfocused dread, but it's starting to make way for in-the-moment excitement.

Dave's second pitch was superb. Almost the entirety was a three sided elevator shaft where you place your back on one side and an outstretched leg pushing on the opposite wall, in the ideal position to savor the exposure below.

On the sixth pitch--the second 5.10+ pitch I'd ever attempted to lead--I led with a fluidity I hadn't experienced before.  It was as if I was too tired to worry if my interpretation of the next sequence was correct.  Everything had worked out so far.  I enjoyed my relaxed disposition, but thought I could be getting close to the edge.

Ahead of me laid a thin finger crack I should be able to lay back and then grab a large hold to regain composure. That's it?  A couple 5.10 moves and I get that big jug to hang on?  Easy.


I checked the micro cam I placed at chest level, slotted my fingers into the fold before me and pulled into the moves.  I raised my right hand to the next gap in the crack, then matched with my left, foot shuffled and repeated until I could make a big reach up to the jug I spied from below.  But it wasn't a jug! It was a marginal pinch.

Shaking with exertion, I tried to reverse the moves. The thought of the last cam flashed in my mind, but, before the image could fruit into a coherent thought, my world began to accelerate. Just as the feeling of acceleration registered, my stomach landed in my gut and I came to a very soft stop.

I was only a couple feet above my gear when I fell, but with rope stretch I fell 25'.  I was okay.  Just a little scrape on my arm.  Woah!  My heart pounded.

"I'm good," I called to Dave in a strange voice, "I'm going to batman up now."

I was pulling on the rope, walking myself up the rock when my forearm cramped solid and pinky curled tight on the rope.  It was the adrenaline jamming my system.  I beat the offending hand against my leg and thrust the curled finger in my mouth so I could pull it straight.

Just ten feet from the next belay stance and I was reduced to a cramping wreck and my ability to move with a modicum of grace was shot.  So I did what I had to.  I grabbed the highest piece of gear, pulled up on a shaky arm and plugged a new piece above.  Then I grabbed that one and repeated. This "french freeing" thuggery seemed like more work than actually climbing, but it felt secure. Finally I clipped the anchor.

"I think it's time we start rappelling," Dave called up.

No! I cried internally.

We had come so far and had even completed all of the most difficult pitches. All that laid ahead were a couple 5.10 pitches, then easier ground to the top. Alas, it would take another four hours, probably five, to reach the summit. This was supposed to be our tour de force to capture the summit block. It would be so great to reach the true peak by such a direct and beautiful route.

I looked across the valley, upon the vast wall of Escudo. The sun was just beginning to dip below its edge.  It was 930pm--two hours before total darkness.

But the weather is so fine! We could push into the night.

If we had more experience and fitness we could push it. Besides, if we were to continue, Dave would have to pick up my slack.  I was cooked.  It was time to go down.

I carefully rigged the rappel and cleaned the pitch back to Dave's stance. I was bitter about reversing our progress, but also psyched that we got so far.  I had climbed only a few 5.9 and 5.10 pitches in my almost two years of climbing, but never in a sustained effort and certainly never in such a threatening environment.

Down we went into the dark.

When climbing, you feel in control of your fate, at least to some degree, but while descending, it's more like you're the sucker in a morbid game of dice. At the end of each rappel you wait in suspense as you pull the rope, hoping it doesn't jam on any of the myriad features you used to ascend the wall.  If it does you're guaranteed an epic, and you may be forced into such dubious activities as ascending the stuck line, or cutting the rope and making numerous short rappels where you'll have many more chances to get the rope stuck.  In the worst case you could end up stranded.  Bait for the next storm.  Combine this world of uncertainty with fatigue, dehydration and hunger and you feel a vertigo of boredom, horror, exhilaration, fatigue and that unfocused dread.

My mind tried to escape by thinking of family and girlfriend, and such pleasures as a warm pizza and a casual afternoon with friends.

1000' of rappels later, after a few scares from stuck ropes that eventually came free, we regained terra firma.  What relief!  But the relief was short, as we still had a two hour descent through loose talus in the dark.

As zombies we descended from the wall, back to our advanced camp where our last can of tuna and packet of soup waited.

We thought we were done with Paine.

the patagonia trip: International Relief

Wind and low visibility shut us down for climbing today, so we retreated to Japonese Camp to pick up more food and a few additional comforts.

Almost back to Japonese, Dave and I passed the successful South African climbers as they returned from the South Tower.  They had been on the move for around 36 hours and stopped in the path to sit, even with their tents less than a mile away.  As they straggled into camp, we offered a nip of celebratory whiskey.  Most declined, solely focused on burrowing into their respective tents to sleep.

The Dutch, who had succeeded on the Central Tower the day before, were more sociable.  Finding them in the climber's shanty, we offered the whiskey and they heartily accepted.  They reciprocated by sharing their honey, tobacco and, after learning that we were low on food, a package of pasta and a large chocolate wafer mystery bar that contained enough calories to keep us in the mountains for another day.

We were dumbfounded by their generosity and felt quite happy.  Hearing they were low, we gave them a stick of sunblock, hoping to return part of the favor.

Later, we came to enjoy the antics of Raul, a climber fom Santiago, who, with an amiably goofy manner, demonstrated the preparation of his powdered eggs.  Then he gave us a zip-lock bag full of the stuff, assuring he had more than he could use.

Back at our bivy site, Dave and I prepared for flight on our route in the morning.  We were convinced that tomorrow would be the day.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

the patagonia trip: ABC

In truly gorgeous weather that made me question our plan, Dave and I carried gear to the bivouac site.  It is the same site we used with Christian to stash gear on our first outing.

The abode consists of a multi-ton boulder propped on one end by a smaller boulder, forming a cavity just large enough for Dave and I to wriggle in.  Previous occupants have filled all the little gaps with rubble. The space is tight, but cozy once we settle in our sleeping bags.  We should be very happy here.


video

Monday, January 21, 2008

the patagonia trip: Reboot

Completing the Monzino Route on the North Tower caught us by surprise.  What should we do now?  Dave suggested we relax for a few days, enjoy some hot meals at La Hosteria, then head to El Chalten in Argentina, where there would be more mountains to climb.  I wanted to stay.  We were in position to climb and we might waste valuable clear days if we move before absolutely necessary.

In the evening, the South Africans heard from Dave Turner, the Californian camped high on El Escudo, on the radio, who said good weather was on its way.  "Tomorrow is the day," they said and began planning their summit bid for the South Tower.  They guessed how long it would take them to approach the route, how long to climb and how long to retreat.  They needed to leave at 11pm to make the best of the daylight.  It was 10pm.  I couldn't believe they could rally so quickly after climbing the Central Tower.

As they scurried to prepare, the South Africans strongly encouraged Dave and I to get out there and do something.  It didn't matter that we already completed the only route in the park we thought we had any hope of doing.  When Patagonia gives you a window, you take it.  Soon Dave and I were pouring over the route map for a line on the North Tower called Taller del Sol.  The 13 pitch route contained 2000 feet of vertical climbing rated at our grade limit. Was it appropriate to push our experience so far in such an environment?  We would have scoffed at the notion prior to our success on Monzino.  Now?  When Patagonia gives you a window...

Even though the South Africans say tomorrow is the day, us mortals need another rest day to have a chance.  Tomorrow we'll bring supplies to an advanced basecamp and ready ourselves to climb the next day.  We will have our shot at that summit block and we'll get there by a whole other class of route, straight up the sheer west face to the pointed summit.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

the patagonia trip: Aftermath

Sweet rest and celebration!  We woke up late and prepared a wonderful meal of fried polenta, chorizo and coffee, then of pasta, sauce, olives and our bottle of red wine.

Later, we got to meet the South African team who had success on the Central Tower yesterday, who had already climbed the North by the Monzino. Their leader, Alod, had bird-like features, was tall, skinny and had the mannerisms of an English officer, reminiscent of a character from Lawrence of Arabia. Then there was Duod, Maryanne, with blond dread locks, Voytek, and the less experienced girlfriend of Alod, Shilly, whom we met a couple times near their advanced BC amidst the talus fields.

"Did you climb the summit boulder?" Voytek asked casually when we recanted tale of our ascent by the campfire.

We told him what happened and he told us that the boulder was indeed climbable, and not even that difficult. You just have to get up close to see the face holds.

You have got to be kidding me.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

the patagonia trip: Climbing Torre Norte

I laid there in my sleeping bag listening, trying to interpret the weather, waiting for our 2am alarm. I could hear the persistent rush of the stream nearby. That was a good thing. The sound of the stream comes and goes when the wind rips through the forest. My watch beeped. I sat up and rocked forward to peer through the front tent door. Stars pierced the black sky and showed through the canopy of Lengua Forest. "We are a go," I said to Dave.

With his aching knee and swollen hand, Dave had expressed reticence over the last few days when we spoke of the mountains, but this morning I could tell he was ready. We rushed the preparation our standard breakfast of "Avena" oatmeal with dried strawberries and a cup of tea, ate, then packed our few things and began the long approach to Silencio Valley around 3am.

Today's hike would be more of a pleasure than the others with most of our gear cached high in the valley, especially since we'd finally realized the value of trekking poles, even for a "light and fast" approach.

We tip toed into the night, creeping up on the right pace. Soon my breathing became regular and I felt light, in a contented trance.

At the gear cache I could no longer contain my excitement. My heart raced. This was our far point and the only time we had seen such peaceful weather.

We sorted our gear, packed and scarfed down a peanut butter and dulce de moro--a kind of sliceable blackberry jam--sandwich, then rock-hopped towards the 2000' talus apron that guards the base of the North Tower.

Around this time we noticed the two Dutch guys we'd met at base camp departing their advanced camp, a stone's throw from our cache. They too were on their way up the talus slope, about 500' ahead.

Negotiating the steep talus blocks, I again fell into a regular breathing pattern and trance-like state. Soon we overtook the Dutch, who were taking turns carrying one huge pack, on their way to attempt the Central Tower. Passing them, on their third expedition here, felt like a little victory. Somehow it validated our effort and made us feel that we too had a right to Patagonia.

At the top of the slope we had to traverse right, over steep scree and slabs, get past a rib of rock and gain a gully beneath the col between the north and central towers. As we approached the rib, the Dutch called to us, "you must go lower!" So we downclimbed around to where the rib was less steep and gained the gully. Thanks Dutch!

This is where the 6 pitches of mixed slab and snow climbing to the col described in our topo began. I racked up and Dave shortened our rope with some coils over his shoulder in preparation for us to simulclimb.

Simulclimbing is when two climbers move in unison, separated by a length of rope and a few pieces of protection. As usual, the leader places the protection and the follower removes each piece as he reaches them. If the leader falls, he'll whip onto the highest anchor and the weight of the second will arrest the fall. If the second falls, the leader will most likely be ripped from the wall, and both will fall until the leader whips on the highest anchor. The latter is a disaster scenario.

The method trades the safety of solid belay anchors for speed, which sometimes, using an abstract alpine calculus, is safer. In this manner we accomplished the first six pitches in a couple of hours.

On lead, I carefully balanced my way through increasingly steep rock, mindful to inspect every foot placement for ice, which was proving to be invisible in places. I climbed into large areas of this ice without realizing it on several occasions and had to find an escape route on dry holds. It was also necessary to stamp and kick every last grain of snow from my shoes, following patches of snow, to prevent slips.

I knew I was going to see an incredible view when I reached the col and wondered what it'd look like. My mind reeled when I finally got there. While the west face is sheer for 2000' on top of the talus slope and moraine, the East face lords 8000' over the valley below. At the col I could look 7000' almost straight down. The glacier below glittered in the sun, and everything took on a blue aura, like the scenery as viewed from an airplane.

The fatigue of being on the move for 7 hours and being focused for six pitches without pause began to set in as I brought Dave up to my position. "How do you feel?" I asked Dave. "Ready to climb," he replied with enthusiasm. I was glad Dave's energy could pick up where mine left off, but I regretted that I would miss leading the next two pitches, which were the route's most difficult and interesting. No matter. There would be plenty more challenges on the route.

Even on such a calm day, the adjacent towers squeezed and concentrated the slightest breeze. I watched in wonder as Dave climbed amid a frigid gale and my hands and toes went completely numb. I donned my puffy belay jacket and ran in place to maintain circulation to my extremities.

Firs, Dave negotiated a right facing dihedral with jagged edges, which he leaned against to create counter-pressure for foot smears. Then he led the second pitch through some thin face climbing, to a short fist crack in a smooth right facing dihedral to a ledge.

When following, I had to stop repeatedly to warm my hands on the back of my neck. Dave was basking in the sun with his shoes off and a smile on his face as I reached the top.

"Nice work!" I congratulated.

"Thanks, you ready to do some more leading?" he asked. And with that I took the rack and we raced through six more pitches of blocky granite.

As I approached the summit I could see several boulders, but couldn't make out which one was the highest. Closer, I could see that one was about 40' higher than the others, but it appeared to be featureless. The words of the Dutch echoed in my mind, "The summit pitch is not scary." Well then, I must be at the top of the route, I said to myself atop the second highest boulder. The taller boulder looked terrifying.


"Gobsmacking" was the word that came to mind of the view from the top. There was a slight breeze in the warm light and I could see sharp, snow capped peaks all along our view to the west. Behind the peaks, along the horizon, was a wall of white clouds and glacier that extended out of sight, clear to the ocean. It was imposing to see such forbidding and blank territory. To the east, the grounds calmed to an expanse of flat green land as far as the eye could see. To the south was the central tower, whose top seemed a stone's throw away, and sides invoked the feeling of a skyscraper across the street.

When Dave came up, we took our summit photos and had a snack of salami, cheese and some chocolate. That higher boulder nagged me.

"Damn it," I said to Dave, "let's go get a closer look at that thing."

About then a team of three from Spain, whom we noticed below us a few pitches back, arrived. "The summit!," they exclaimed and started taking pictures atop the boulder Dave and I had just vacated. I pointed to the taller boulder 20 meters over and they said we had reached the end of the Monzino Route and that the higher boulder didn't appear climbable.

I was relieved, but now we had a long descent before us, which would be full of unknowns and potential for catastrophe. The Spaniards, David, Barbara and Pedro offered to join forces for the descent. We were thankful and agreed.

The Spaniards, especially Pedro, were very experienced and efficiently set our rappels as we leap-frogged down the mountain. The strength of our numbers made the descent a more relaxed process than it would have been and we touched down to the talus slope just as the light was waning, around 9:30pm.

Dave and I parted with the Spaniards and took a break before our epic slog home. We nibbled on some food, relieved ourselves and began the downward trek home. Intellectually, I was happy that we had succeeded in our wild goal. Just the day before I was cast in a funk because the end of our food was in sight, and Dave's knee threatened to put the trip on hold, and now we had done it! But, truly, the emotion of accomplishment failed to register. Instead, my outset plunged to my level of exhaustion.

For over two hours we picked our way down the talus and for another two hours we stumbled by headlamp back to camp. We reached camp at 1:15am, a little over 22 hours after we had departed. We cast off our gear, took off our shoes from swollen feet and moaned and grunted as we prepared to sleep. We brewed up a quick Ramen noodle soup, downed it and crawled into our tent, ready for coma. Just as we closed our eyes my watch alarm went off, set for 2am from the morning before. 24 hours. What a day!

Friday, January 18, 2008

the patagonia trip: The Columbians

Two days in a row Dave and I woke for our 2am weather check and were content to find the wind blowing and the sky cloudy so we could roll over and continue to sleep.  The Columbians, Sebastian, Patricio and Daniel, on the other hand, woke each morning and completed the 2-3 hour trek into the Silencia Valley, regardless of the weather here at camp.

The Columbians arrived in camp around the same time Dave and I returned from our break down at Hosteria Las Torres.  We were lounging in the tent when Pato, with his wiry and highly weathered features, walked up, dropped his pack and casually jumped up on the slack line strung near our tent, walked across, turned around and walked back, feet shod in mountaineering boots.  It seemed to me he was marking his territory.

Sebastian was a little less menacing in appearance than the primitive and wild Pato.  He had a friendlier face and spoke decent English, which helped him communicate good intentions, but he too had the proportions and style of movement of someone who could climb circles around Dave and I.

The third, Daniel, stood off to the side, smoked cigarettes and made wise-cracks.  He didn't look like a hard climber as the others did--in fact, it turned out that making beer at his home in Puerto Natales was his passion--but it was evident this wasn't his first time at base camp.

They were, as we were, there to climb the Monzino route on Torre Norte.  Dave and I were intimidated and I completely distrusted them.  They probably took advantage of people in remote places to feed their dirt-bag, climbing and Columbian narcotics-dealing lifestyles.

Over the next few days, Dave and I interacted with them more and more.  I would practice my Spanish with Pato, who worked as a porter and guide in Paine during the summer and as an avalanche controlman at Portillo in the winter, and he would practice his English on me, telling stories of expeditions that had come to Paine that he had assisted.

Sebastian's good nature, which I had doubted momentarily, proved to be completely genuine.  I picked his brain on the approach for the Monzino and he didn't hesitate to go over every detail.


"Tomorrow is the day," Sebastian would say with a smile, everyday after returning from a forbidding silencio valley.

"Si, manana es el dia," we would smile back.

On their last night at Japonese, we gave the Columbians a piton--as they were previously inquiring about buying some--with the hopes that they'd drive it home on a new route they were talking about in the French Valley.

Within the few days of their stay, the weather never broke and the Columbians never got to climb.  It was a shame they were leaving as we noticed the barometric pressure was the highest we'd seen it on their last night in camp.  Something was about to change, we knew it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

the patagonia trip: Wind

I woke a good twenty minutes before our 2am alarm and set about making breakfast as soon as I saw stars piercing the clear sky.

I could hear wind, which didn't bode well for climbing, but we had to try.  At least we could get a view of the sky above the canopy in the Silencio Valley.

Having prepared our packs and food the night before, we were quickly off.  I emulated Christian's slow, methodical steps ascending into the night.  As we rose in altitude we became more subject to the wind I had heard from the safety of camp.

At first we could simply lean into it and continue, but then we were hit with gusts that had us dropping to the ground grasping for rocks to hold us down.

Where the heck was our gear cache? I wondered through the dim light of my headlamp.

We were looking for a snow field, of which we had to cross several as we followed the moraine.  The one we looked for had a  particularly deep moat on its side.  The moat was so deep that Christian had us practicing our vertical snow ascending technique with our crampons and ice axes on our first outing with him.  Adjacent to this 30' wall of snow would be some talus where our gear was cached.
Practicing in the moat a few days prior with Christian

"Damn it.  We're definitely past it," Dav said to me.  I knew he was right, but I wanted to cross one more ridge to be sure.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

the patagonia trip: Home Sweet Home

Today was beautiful, which was torture, since we weren't in position to climb.  On the other had, it felt great to be on the move again.  We had packed up and headed back to campamento Japonese.  We took the hike at a steady pace and hardly breaked along the way.  How great it was to be back at basecamp!  Finally we were back in position to be productive in the mountains.  Tomorrow will be an alpine start if the weather looks okay at 2am.

Monday, January 14, 2008

the patagonia trip: Founding Fathers

We took another rest day today.  My appetite has returned closer to normal and I have become a little anxious to get going. Dave is still limping and my heel is still tight, but I am confident it will get better soon.  I'm less confident and a little worried about Dave's knee.

It was very nice to speak with Laura his evening, even if it did cost an arm and a leg.

We also had the fortune to see a presentation by Derek Walker, who was part of the first ascent team on the Central Tower.  It was strange that on our first time here we got to meet one of the founders, so to speak, or the park.

 It was Derek's expedition with the great Don Whillans and Chris Bonnington that named many of the peaks here, including El escudo, Fortulessa and El Tridente--the trident, sword and shield of ol' brittanica--which have been keeping us company in Valle Silencio.

What was strange to me that Derek hadn't been back to the park since their team's momentous success.  We were getting to be a part of his homecoming.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

the patagonia trip: The Sweetest Recovery

There was no doubt about today being a rest day.  Stripped of my alpine action suit, I was startled to see my skin hanging from my muscle and bone much more loosely than I could remember.  We savored warm meals and tore through pats of butter with bread.  I also shot out a hasty email to everyone at home. I wonder what I wrote, since I didn't read it over in the end and I don't think I'm yet thinking clearly.  (message posted below)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

the patagonia trip: Bailure

We woke to find the same wretched conditions that plagued us throughout the night. Our largest problem, we discussed, would be the high winds, which we could hear as a constant jet roar high on the ridge of our route.

In everyday life, wind is but a nuisance. Here, were a characteristically Patagonian gust to hit us as we traversed the ridge over the 2000' drop, it could spell disaster.

"What would you guys do if I wasn't here?" Christian asked.

"We'd wait as long as possible while still leaving enough time to comfortably finish our route today. If the weather was still bad, we would retreat," I suggested.

And with Christian's approval, we went back to bed with the time of our final decision postponed for two hours, until 11am.

I fell back to a wonderful sleep in my soggy carapice and woke to christian calling for action. It was 1030am and we needed to be on the move at 11am.

Friday, January 11, 2008

the patagonia trip: Attempt on Roller Coaster Circuit

Yesterday’s 2am flight for the North Tower had elevated my hopes to irretrievable levels. When the weather disintegrated and made its intent to stay apparent, my mood crashed to meet the gloom of the skies. We practiced with our axes and crampons, built snow anchors and discussed various scenarios, but all I wanted was to crawl back in my sleeping bag and prepare myself for another assault on a mountain objective.

Since the good weather was supposed to occur yesterday and today’s weather was expected to be marginal, we shifted our goal from the committing North Tower to a repeat of Steve Sneider’s “Roller Coaster Circuit” around the South Tower. Last night, in the bleary stupor aftermath of our alpine start and day’s activities, we reviewed the route, way-point to way-point, and estimated bearings, elevation changes and travel times for each segment. 

 The route would begin as our attempt on the North Tower had, by scrambling deep into the Silencio Valley. Then we’d ascend a couloir to the col between the central and South Towers, descend a couloir on the other side into the valley of Las Torres and cross a glacier at the foot of the South Tower.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

the patagonia trip: Deterioration

I woke to Christian’s thump on our tent, astonished that I had managed to fall asleep at all and curious what happened to the alarm we set for 2am.

 My hands trembled with excitement and it took a laughable ten or so tries to get one contact in. Then Dave and I wolfed down a quick breakfast of cereal and hot powdered milk and a few spoonfuls of peanut butter. The peanut butter was to fix any left-over hunger following our skimpy rations.  With that, we reported to the Steve Sneider tent, where Christian readied himself.

 Off we went. But why are we going so slowly? Didn't Christian know we could handle more? Not much later my breathing became labored and my thighs burned from our unyielding upward march into the Silencio Valley, and I came to appreciate our pace. 

 The stars still shown with stark intensity, but the wind had picked up, carrying fat snow-flakes. It was strange to see such bright stars through such snow. Christian stopped periodically to observe the heavens and express his doubts. I was sure the weather would be perfect. This was simply the chaos that precedes sunrise, I reasoned with myself. 

 The skies continued to deteriorate and pretty soon they were solid grey and the wind was forcing snow into every chink in our alpine armor…

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

the patagonia trip: Alpine Eve

We woke after 9am to a chilly but beautiful day. After breakfast of hot cereal we were soon having endless mate with Ivo. Then Ivo and I watched as spectators of a very slow sport: Dave searching for the slow leak in his Thermarest. First there was a visual inspection, then a soapy sponge trial, followed by stripping down and dunking the whole thing in a slow section of the stream.

 As the day progressed, the three of us, alone in our camp, fell into a rhythm of social interaction. First we'd hang out as three, then break and do individual chores, which would give way to being social in pairs, then the third would join, and so on. 

 We cooked a nice lunch with a sauce made with Ivo’s fresh veggies and our pasta and tomato paste. We played on a slack line, with Ivo showing us how it’s done and Dave and I trying to make our first steps. 

Abruptly, Ivo took off for a walk. A short time later he returned to tell us that he’s found a boulder with a crack that we should go play on.

 A short walk on and off a trail brought us to a short granite boulder with a left leaning crack, a small corner that made for a difficult pinch and a sloppy under cling. We took turns exploring the holds and the movement possible between them. I felt weak and self conscious at first, but soon found a groove and enjoyed the movement on the rock.

When we returned, Christian had arrived. He told us that the weather might be good the next day and that we’d attempt the Monzino route on the North Tower. Dave and I, in almost panicked excitement, set about organizing our gear and getting ready. We bedded at almost 1am to clear, star studded skies. Our wake-up time was 2:30am.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

the patagonia trip: Settling In

I slept okay last night, though there were some bouts where I laid awake listening to the stream nearby and the roar of the wind high in the peaks. The two sounds would merge periodically so I wasn’t sure if I was hearing a full-on Patagonian gale or a benign rush of water.

 We woke around 8:30am to find some light hail and cool temps. Since much of our camping equipment was still down at Campamento Chileno, we had few breakfast options. In fact, regardless of our lack of cooking equipment we were also somewhat paralyzed to eat the food we had so painstakingly humped up here. Every bite we ate would bring us closer to having to leave. In the end we let ourselves to some cereal with powdered milk. 

 Soon after we began our hike back to camp Chileno for our first of the day’s slated two loads. Even with our packs empty, the going was tough. We could certainly feel our activities of yesterday. Other hikers even passed us, driving home the point that we were ragged, but we later caught up and overcame them at a short scrambly section, which made us feel better. 

 For the last section of the hike we were starved and our spirits sunk to a lump in our throats when we found the kitchen to be closed at camp Chileno. Then, having settled on purchasing a Fanta orange soda, the light eyed local behind the counter couldn’t make change for our only Chilean bill. We swallowed the lumps in our throats, filled our packs from our horse carried gear cache and began our way back to base camp in the standard spitting rain and wind.

Monday, January 7, 2008

the patagonia trip: Logistics

Sleeping through our optimistically set 7am alarms, we woke at 8am, brushed our teeth, I donned my contacts and we sauntered off to the hostel for breakfast. With what we thought were the fixings for cinnamon toast, we made toast with butter, sugar and powered coffee. It wasn’t bad. I liked it. So we ate it with amusement, along with the oatmeal, scrambled eggs, juice and tea, which was all part of the standard hostel breakfast.

What came next was by no means elegant. We ferried ourselves between the hotel and horse stable area and the hostel, which are 800 meters apart. We reserved the horses at the hotel, then had to go to the hostel to pay, then back to the stable to find out if they would bring the horses to our camp for loading, which they wouldn’t… Then we spent a couple hours walking our six giant bags of gear and food to the stable, where, upon completion of the effort, the authentically dressed gauchos told us it would be an hour before we could depart.

Meanwhile the gauchos attempted to load a very freaked out horse with two 4’x 8’ sheets of plywood, one on each side, which made the horse rear and fall over. The gauchos calmed the horse, which had successfully ejected the load and proceeded to hang out, cavort and do everything but load our luggage on to any one of the hundred or so not-freaked horses. Two hours later, Dave and I caved to our hunger pangs and went to grab a bite at the hotel. When we returned, our bags had finally departed. We strapped on loaded trekking packs and embarked for Campamento Chileno.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

the patagonia trip: First sight

Our hostess kindly had breakfast ready for us this morning at 6am. By 6:25am, after sweet corn flakes, yogurt and toast we were piling our cab full of our gear with the help of our cabby.

We boarded our bus around 7am in a spitting rain and were quickly lulled back to sleep. The bus was chilly but comfortable with seats that reclined effectively. A few times I woke, feeling guilty about passing up the scenery, but a glance through the windows, which were bleary with condensation, reassured me that I wasn’t missing too much. It was only the flat terrain with the standard trees and scrub brush we had already become acquainted with.

 A few hours later, awake for good after some strange dreams, the landscape began to change. All of a sudden there were hills, then vegetated mountains and eventually larger mountains of dark crumbly rock with some small snowfields. When we reached the Paine massif, we saw only a whirling mass of clouds, but we knew we had arrived. The bus stopped at an outpost for the passengers to pay the $15 entrance fee. Dave and I spoke with a ranger about what we’d need to do from there. We would have to take a bus, which would come in four hours, one and a half hours to the outpost with the administration center, where we would have to get our climbing permit processed. Presently we are returning from the administration station to pick up our gear, which we left behind, and will take another bus to an outpost further in the park. There we will spend the night. 

 Back at the admin station we got to name our expedition. We chose, “Tradical Sabatical.” Also, Christian had left us an encouraging note. He said that he had stopped by to see if we had arrived and that he had some ideas for our days with him. He would meet us at Campamento Japanese on the 9th and we would try to climb on the 10th-13th. “Have information on the Bonnington-Whillans route on the central tower and also on the north tower,” he included. Those were the words that truly stoked us and those were the two towers that peaked at us through the clouds, giving us glimpses of their phantasmagorical proportions.

Friday, January 4, 2008

the patagonia trip: Expectations

Many months ago, when the idea of this trip was born, the vision was of an epic voyage, traveling and climbing from peak to peak with only the supplies we could carry on our backs. Serious sacrifices were expected to be necessary. Perhaps we’d only be able to bring a couple pairs of underwear, a single set of clothes and simple, light-weight food would be all we could manage. We could realize an ideal of backcountry freedom by traveling so light.

I still subscribe to the ideal, but, as our planning for the trip progressed, the realities of our ambition to climb technical peaks in locations with large environmental extremes evolved our vision. We came to terms with the fact that we’d have to travel with a duffel in addition to our “only” pack when, on a weekend trip to the Adirondacks, our “only” packs were bursting with only a couple days worth of supplies. Speaking with our alpine hero, Jim Donini, on the phone didn’t help. He told us of the myriad things he brings on his own Patagonian expeditions, including large tents, good food and stoves.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

the patagonia trip: Intro My Partner

“I don’t know what chill is, but I know that I’m not part of it,” says Dave, my climbing partner, as we wait at the gate to board our flight out of DC.  You know we're going to be spending many days together couped up in a tent don't you?  At least he shouldn't be spacing on belay!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

the patagonia trip: Loose Ends

Laura, Megan, Aaron, perhaps a couple others and I walked up a glass-walled stair shaft that looked out upon a dreary airport runway. What did Aaron do that pissed that lady off? Apparently there was a pissed off lady who wouldn’t relent with her updates on the ill-effects of Aaron’s action. I’m sure it couldn’t have been that bad. Oh? He hit her with a chunk of ice? He was horsing around, lobbed a chunk of ice into the air and hit an obnoxious lady in the rib! I see. What a strange interlude. But, getting back to the conversation at hand, of course it is going to be an amazing trip. Amazing trip! Amazing trip!

The past few months have been a groundhog day of this conversation. I talk about my coming trip and then the eyes of whomever I’m speaking with light up as if watching a movie of my trip on the inside of their eyeballs. Then they say, “You’re going to have such an amazing time! Such an amazing time!” I always want to know what they see on the inside of their eyeballs.

I awoke from this funk of sleep in the mangled position I’ve been growing accustomed to on the 6:05am Amtrak train from Philly on Monday morning. The train is perfectly timed so I can go from the depths of sleep to the guilt tainted horror of being groggy, red-eyed and half an hour late to work within the ten minutes it takes to walk from Union Station to Senate Square Towers. But this wasn’t any day back from a weekend visiting Laura and friends. It was my last day at work before THE trip—the day I would have to dump my loose ends—loose ends I was sure had been breeding in the corners of my pre-TRIP world—onto coworkers whom I genuinely liked…