Reflections from Chalten: 3 of 4

Purgatory

Hope, like fire, is a dangerous element. A two-edged sword, it can offer protection and instill a confidence that can carry you through a storm. Allowed to go unchecked though, it can quickly overwhelm one’s mind, leading to devastation as reality ultimately prevails. In two climbing seasons I have spent ten weeks in this town, most of that time waiting for a weather window like this to appear. Three days long, stable, and predictable. This is the kind of weather that allows those dream climbs to occur. I had a motivated parter. I had the objective. I was feeling rested and fit. Finally, it was all coming together.

A smile crossed my face as the weather closed in around us. Snug in our well protected cave that would be our home for the next day and a half, I was excited that the forecast was proving to be so accurate. Yesterday we had summited a smaller objective, a sort of warm up for the main show which was still to come. Two days of rest and bad weather were to follow. On the fourth day, already in a camp high on the mountain, we would be in an ideal position to begin our multi-day ascent of St. Exupery.

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Igor on the summit ridge of De L’s.

Foolishly, I allowed my to hope to run unchecked. Unbridled and let free, it went nearly to the impossible, and took a firm grasp. Now, instead of one major peak, we would climb two, back to back, in the best style possible.

We rose at midnight and packed quickly in the silent night. It wasn’t until we left the cave to fill our water bottles that we saw the snow falling all around. Visibility was near zero. Already four hours into the forecasted good weather window we were dumbfounded. After an hour of waiting with no signs of stopping we crawled back in our cave and went to sleep. At five, with the light of dawn minutes away, we rose again with another team and prepped for our departure. The snow was beginning to lighten and showed signs of stopping. While all the fresh precipitation didn’t bode well for rock climbing, our route was to begin with a long snow ramp that would take us up the first 200 meters of the mountain. “How perfect”, I thought.

On the two-hour approach things went very smooth. The cold temperatures kept the snow on the glacier in easy walking condition. Having a team on the nearby mountain was a comfort, while still allowing us to have our objective to ourselves. The day had come and it was beautiful, sunny, and still. A rare, perfect day in these mountains.

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On approach to our objective, St. Exupery, The center tower. Photo by Igor Martínez Gutiérrez

It wasn’t until we were 500 meters away from the base that we realized we had a serious problem. The glacier, while quite safe, was filled with a maze of large, open crevasses. These cracks in the glacier, of indeterminable depth, were far too wide for us to simply step over. Having viewed these from the nearby peak few days ago, I knew they would make for a tricky approach, but I assumed that with time we would be able to find our way though. We had time, so we began the search. Up and down the glacier we moved. Hours slipped away as the sun rose higher in the deep blue summer sky. After nearly six hours, we had exhausted all of our options. It really seemed that there was just no way through this natural labyrinth.

 

 

The dreaming came to a screeching halt. I tumbled off the cloud, falling, hurtling towards the hard, unforgiving reality below. Cartwheeling, and in a last ditch effort to slow the fall, I proposed another radical plan; climb lesser, nearby peak today, then make the grueling 8 hour descent back to the valley to attempt another easy peak. Already being so late in the day, the plan would allow for a maximum of only two hours of sleep that night, capped by two hard days on either side.

The first peak went easy enough, it was actually pleasant. The day was nice, we had some laughs and enjoyed the stunning landscapes around us. By early evening we were back at the cave, packing furiously. After learning all we could from other climbers in the cave about the notoriously tricky approach for our second objective we bounded off down the hill.

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Igor just moves away from the summit on Mojon Rojo.

By headlamp we covered the final kilometers to our camp spot for the night. With only 2.5 hours until wake up we didnt bother with a tent, just a sleeping bag and the stars above. My eyes had seemily just closed when the alarm went off again. There was hesitation about getting up and going for it; it was only my partner’s motivation that convinced me to move my tired and beaten body.

In the pre-dawn we struggled to follow the vague clues our fellow climbers had given us about the approach to the mountain. We crossed the river and entered the forest. We found a stream that seemed to correspond to where we wanted to be on the map. Up and up we ascend along its bank, passing through thick brush and overlooking spectacular waterfalls. We saw no signs of the passage of others, but this did not concern us as we felt we were nearing the mountain.

At daybreak we broke through the treeline. Seeing the mountain laid bare before us, we noticed that a long rock spine lay between us and the start of the route. With confidence still high we picked our way up the loose, gray shale and onto the crest. Immediately, reality hit hard. What we had thought was an easy ridge proved to be a impenetrable mass of steep, red walls made up of loose and crumbling rock. The game was up. No way to cross it, our only option was down. Being too late in the day, too exhausted, and with still no better information about the approach, our attempt was over. Under peaceful, clear skies and with a crushed spirit, I began my return to town.

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An elusive, clear view of Fitz Roy’s summit basking in the light of dawn.

 

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