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.
Several mixed pitches of rock, snow and ice would then grant us a ridge, with a talus walk down into the Bader Valley. More glacier travel and a hike up a talus slope would gain us a view into the French Valley, which we’d enter via a couple rappels. Then a short traverse would have us looking at six rappels and a jump over a bergshrund back down into the Silencio Valley, where we could return the way we came.

 In this manner we would circle the South Tower in a clockwise fashion and get to see more of the Paine massif than most see in a full week of trekking. We estimated the trip would take around 17 hours. To add a margin of safety, we planned to bivouac halfway through, in the French Valley. 

 We departed camp at a leisurely 6:30am, beginning at the slow, methodical, practiced pace set by Christian, speeding up slightly as our bodies warmed up. I felt I had learned from yesterday. Today I would not let my hopes and ambitions run wild. I would focus on savoring each movement and let my mind turn off so I could properly take in my surroundings. 

 One foot in front of the other we climbed into the Silencio Valley. Wooded trails quickly gave way to a steep, dry streambed, then a traverse on dark sedimentary scree, and finally to the endless granite talus where we found our gear cache from the day before. Even though the sky was solidly overcast, there wasn’t a breath of wind. 

 To our right towered the 3000’ sheer face of Escudo, where a Californian climber, Dave Turner, has been living on the wall for almost twenty days, working a new route. Squinting, you could just make out the white triangle of his portaledge, almost halfway up the sea of granite. To our left rose the twin summits of the North Tower, which I stole glances of between foot placements in the ankle jarring talus, to help inform our future attempts. Ahead of the North Tower stood the perfect cylinder of the Central Tower, then the South Tower with its large shoulder extending from its north side. It must be that shoulder that tricks the eye into believing that the south tower is the most diminutive of the three towers. In fact, it is the tallest. 

Exchanging our sticky soled approach shoes for our mountaineering boots, and shouldering the climbing rack and ropes from the cache, we continued our scramble up the valley, the air eerily silent. “I should also be quiet, so I do not wake the sleeping monster,” I thought.

 Finally we reached the base of the couloir below the col between the central and south towers, and began ascending the steep shingles of slabby granite, putting great faith in the friction from our boots. We reached a small snow field and Christian cut steps with his ice ax. I looked down. We were almost a thousand feet over the valley floor with nothing but dangerously steep hard snow and smooth granite slabs separating us. Would one be able to recover from a slip? 

 More slabs gave way to a large apron of hard snow. This time, we attached our crampons, wielded our axes and continued up in the switchback pattern we had adopted when we first encountered the steeps. The work was painstaking, and every two steps required their own breath. 

 Keeping my feet flat on the incline according to the “French” technique stretched my heel to its limit, burned my calves and tortured my feet in the medieval footwear. Periodically, ice would calve off of a hanging glacier across the valley at the base of El Escudo and I would stop and catch my breath and look for the remnants of the ice fall that produced the cacophony. Inevitably, the ice fall would be complete by the time its thunder reached us and there was little to see. Gaining rocky ground once again, on the finest grained white granite I had ever seen, we stowed our crampons and laboriously made our way up to the col. 

 Up to this point we had experienced only isolated breezes punctuating the uncharacteristically still air. Even just a few feet below the col, the air was quiet. As soon as we popped our heads into the notch, we entered an unwavering gale. As my accumulated sweat evaporated in a flash, I wrestled on another layer, being careful not to let it shoot from my grasp. 

We now looked down upon the Valley of Las Torres, defined on our side by the towers and on the other, by the great bulk of Almirante Nieto. Entering the park from the south, one sees Almirante Nieto as a black mountain of jagged sedimentary rock, topped with chaotic seracs and swirling clouds. Other sides of the mountain, as viewed from the Bader Valley, are sheer granite, with the rosy hue of a perpetual sunrise. Where we huddled in the col, we could see the transition, where the “tortured turbidite,” as the crumbly sedimentary rock is called, gives way in a diagonal slash to the fantastical granite walls. 

 Directly before us, we stared into the gullet of a 2000’ chute of steep snow, which spilled onto an expansive, crevasse riddled glacier below. “How amazing it would be to ski this,” I thought, “if only I didn’t fall into a crevasse, that is.”

 The original plan was for me to proceed down, followed closely by Dave, on belay by Christian at the top. I would place what protection I could in the rock walls on the sides on the couloir to protect Christian’s decent. However, the snow soft and stable, Christian opted for all of us to descend together, tightly rope to one another. Christian would take the rear position and dig in if one of us slipped. 

 Facing downward, we plunge-stepped our way down and out of the howling wind in the notch. I felt strangely confident, no doubt from skiing the steeps. “Ah!” I gasped as the front point of my left crampon caught the gaiter on my right leg. I pitched forward, throwing my left hand down to arrest the fall. At the same time the rope came right at my waist. “What happened?” Christian demanded, as an officer to a subordinate. I told him. “It doesn’t happen again,” he asserted. I agreed, feeling foolish, but still confident. 

 At the base we encountered the expected bergschrund. A berschrund is a large crevasse that often forms where a glacier pulls away from the steep mountain sides that feed it. Since I was in the lead, I described what I saw to Christian and offered the course I thought we should follow. With Christian’s approval, I led us along the lip of the “schrund” to the left, where we crossed a snow bridge. 

 In this manner we negotiated several more crevasses on our way to a nanutek where we would break for lunch and scope out the next section of our route. A nanutek is an island of rock within the path of a glacier. This one appeared as a 300’ fin with a flat, talus strewn top that could be easily accessed from the high side of the glacial slope. 

 Atop the nanutek we took our much deserved break, 7 hours into the trip and right on schedule. Dave and I assembled and devoured sandwiches of cheese and salami, then of chocolate, dried cranberries and peanut butter. How delicious! Christian ate a similar lunch, shared his almonds and considered the terrain before us. 

 Looking over the precipitous tip of the nanutek, we could see the whole of the Torre Valley sprawling below. At the end were glacial lakes of dark, milky green, bordered by moraine. Somewhere down there laid the end of a tourist hiking trail, where people would come to a great view of the Towers. Then there was the crevasse riddled glacier with us near the top. Behind us was a 1500’ cliff we would have to climb in order to follow our route into the next valley. 

 After a quick traverse across the glacier, we switched our rope configuration for christian to lead the pitches ahead, with both Dave and I belaying him on a skinny rope each. The first pitch began with Christian crossing a small snow bridge, which was the sole weakness in the bergshrund at the base of the cliff and our route. Then he dispatched a snowy section and an anchor at the first section of rock. Dave and I followed simultaneously and joined him in short order. 

 Christian embarked on the second pitch with crampons on rock. Halfway through he stowed his spikes and continued in boots. Following this pitch, and, with the security of a top-rope, I kept my crampons on to get a feel for climbing in them. I was surprised at how easy and natural it was, but, nevertheless, ditched them as the going got steeper on the third pitch. 

 Finally, our good weather broke into falling snow. What was relatively easy 5.4 or 5.5 climbing on 70 degree slabs all of a sudden become more daunting. 

 Coming to the anchor of around our 5th pitch, Christian instructed, "Don't weight the anchor." With a decent stance on steps kicked in a patch of snow, shivering against the cold, I observed the setup. There were two small cams stuffed deeply behing a largely detached flake. The lower one of the two dribbled a constant stream of water. Christian looked at the pitch ahead. "I'm not going to like this one," he said, and set off. 

Forty feet up, with but a couple pieces of gear between him and our dubious anchor, Christian found the crux of our route. He was faced with a shallow dihedral with a few modest hand holds on the plane perpendicular to the cliff, and only smears for feet in such a position as to force a layback. What gear there was available was poor and far behind. The foot smears, which depend on friction, would have to be on wet rock, and any desirous horizontal surfaces were becoming caked with slushy snow. 

 Christian carefully pulled into the layback position, placed a high left foot onto a slushy edge and committed to the move. Success. A few dicey moves and a thank-god piece of gear later and he was through the worst, constructing an anchor very near the end of the rope.

 Dave followed, using his ice ax on the rock to accomplish some of the difficult sections. I followed in my soggy softshell gloves, employing some inelegant scrapping for positive stances. 

 After a couple more rope strutchers, a pitch from the top, we all began to relax. Here I was, cold and soggy, over a thousand feet above a glacial floor, looking out through falling snow on the prehistoric looking Patagonian landscape, having been on the move for over 10 hours. I was in heaven. I had dreampt of this moment for months and I was finally here. I told Christian of this feeling and he pinched me in reply, to prove that I wasn't dreaming. 

 Christian led the last pitch carfully through some loose rock and patches of snow. Dave and I were especially looking forward to the scramble down the other side where we could establish a consistent level of output and finally get warm. 

 As Christian reached the top, he peeked over the ridge and cursed. "Damn it! How the hel did I do that?" he swore to himself. 

 The accoustics of this last pitch, which was more sheltered than the rest, allowed me to hear his privations quite clearly. "Dave," I said, "I think we have ourselves a new route." 

 When we joined Christian at the top, we looked over the ridge and where there should have been an easy walk down, there was a sheer cliff. "New rounte?" I asked. "Yeah, what do you want to call it?" he replied. "How about Rollercoaster direct?" I suggested. "More like the Rollercoaster Indirect," he corrected. 

 Slinging a horn with a cordalette we made a rappel anchor, then stacked the rope so Christian could feed himself the rope as he descended, rather than let it hang and tangle itself in the wind. 

Rappelling to a large rubble covered ledge, Christian spent a good fifteen minutes trundling loose rocks, so they wouldn't follow us down when we pulled the ropes. Dave and I watched the fireworks and savored the gunpowder smell of pulverized rock.  

Dave dropped down next, then I followed. Once I cleared the ledge, I was astonished to see that the one full length rappel made it all the way down to the base of the cliff, atop a large talus slope.

 I cleared my rap device from the rope and Christian set about pulling it. He heaved and heaved and slid down the talus slope with one end of the rope in tow. Despite his meticulous efforts to clear our descent passage of loose rocks, a fist sized chunk freed itself near the ledge at the top, bounced once and fired towards Christian. Christian made a shuffle step back and flinched as the rock landed a mere foot in front of his stance, inches from our pile of rope. "Phew," he said in a surprisingly relaxed manner, pretending to wipe sweat off his brow. 

 We had been on the move for 12 hours and entertained no other thoughts than to find a place to bivy, eat some food and get some rest. Limping down the talus, it was quite evident that Dave was feeling the pain in his knee that had started to nag him the day before. I too was feeling lame as the achilles tendon in my left foot felt as if someone had taken a hammer to it. 

 Christian untiringly sprinted ahead in search of a good boulder to offer us shelter. He decided upon a boulder the size of an SUV, with one side steeply overhanging the ground by about seven feet, and immediately set about rearranging the surrounding talus to clear our sleeping area and to fortify the space under the overhang, by building walls on the sides where the overhang touched the ground. I jumped in on the stone work as soon as I arrived, as did Dave a little while after. 

 Where I was uncertain as to what level we should invest our weary selves into this task, Dave's engineering impulse kicked in and he and Christian proceeded to build an impressively solid wall, which wedged tightly to the slanting stone above. It was so well constructed that Christian could push his shoulder into the wall and it would only clink slightly, without visible movement. Meanwhile, I put dinner together so when the wall was complete, so was the pasta with cream sauce. 

 After eating we slithered into our bivy sacks, hoping sleep would be the only thing to touch us in night. It was not to be. The freezing rain that had been falling increased its intensity, along with the wind, which buffeted our open shelter in long continuous bursts. 

 Initially, I tried to maintain a breathing hole near my mouth, but it was futile as water would pour in the opening and the fabric would pummel my face from the wind. Sooner or later I realize that with such wind, which easily penetrated the fabric of my bivy sack, I didn't actually need a breathing hole. Was I worried about my breath condensing and wetting my down sleeping bag? Water was already pouring in through the zipper! Somehow, I seriously thought this was funny and I rolled over to fall into a remarkably comfortable sleep.

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