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!

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