Because this blog post is so long, I’ve divided it into chapters:
2. CALIFORNIA ROUTE SOLO
3. SUPERCANALETA CAR-TO-CAR
4. CERRO SOLO, “EL DRAGON”
5. CERRO HUEMUL
6. TORRE EGGER AND PUNTA HERRON, SOLO
7. CERRO HUEMUL, “END OF FAITH”
8. TORRE TRAVERSE IN A DAY
9. WAVE EFFECT IN A DAY
[Editor’s Note: As I begin to write this summary of my Patagonian climbing season, I’m sitting on a morning bus from El Chaltén to the El Calafate airport. It’s now been nearly two weeks of bad weather since I was last up in the mountains, and the stark change of pace from the non-stop activity of the previous weeks makes it feel like I was last climbing quite a while ago.]
My previous Patagonia climbing season, climbing last year mostly with Marc-André Leclerc and Alex Honnold, had been my most successful yet. Among a bunch of other activity was the first ascent of the Travesía del Oso Buda, the first repeat and direct variation to El Arca de los Vientos, and a nearly-complete, one-day Torre Traverse. It was the most successful climbing trip of my life, and I honestly thought that I would never have a more successful Patagonian climbing season. One year later, and to my surprise I can say that this season has been my most successful yet. Of course that is mostly the result of the three big factors (good weather, good conditions, good partner) fortunately coinciding again and again, but I can also say that this year I’ve felt more psychologically strong than in years past. For whatever reason, something clicked for me this season, and I felt I think more confident than I ever have before.
Although I’m someone with zero musical talent whatsoever, music is very important to me and I get a lot of inspiration from it. Most of my favorite songs, albums and artists have specific memories associated with them, and also many of my climbing trips have specific songs and albums associated with them. For example, my first ever trip to Patagonia, in December 2003, is forever linked for me to Alice in Chains’ song “Rotten Apple.” Similarly, Chalten 2015-2016 will always be replayed in my head to Clint Mansell’s soundtrack to “Requiem for a Dream.”
2. CALIFORNIA ROUTE SOLO, DECEMBER 31
In early February of 2013, near the end of a very busy and successful season, Dylan Johnson and I climbed Chaltén on a stormy day via the California Route. I knew afterwards that I could solo the route, and the idea joined many others in a long queue of Patagonian dreams. The following season was a stormy and largely frustrating one, in which I never ended up putting on rock shoes in the mountains once. After more than two months with no good windows, an extremely good weather window finally arrived in mid February. I was partnered with Rolo Garibotti, one of my heroes and most influential mentors, and we headed for the Fitz Traverse, a project we had already attempted twice previously. Only a few pitches in we had to turn around because Rolo wasn’t feeling healthy. The frustration of missing such good weather was greater than normal, since it was the only good period of the season. After one day of rest down in town, I tried to harness the frustration and hiked back in alone, for a solo attempt on the California Route. I soloed tensely up to La Brecha (the col between Chaltén and Aguja Poincenot), and then looked up at the mountain rising above. I felt scared, and bailed. On the hike out I stopped for a quick rest at Piedra del Fraile, and immediately learned of a fatal accident on the Supercanaleta. The person I talked with didn’t remember the names, but I quickly realized that my friend Chad Kellogg was dead. I hiked the rest of the way out with Alice in Chains’ “Would?” on repeat, and tears behind my sunglasses.
A solo of the California Route was back on my mind by this past December, and at midday on the 29th I began leisurely hiking in, with the mountains in pretty snowy condition, but three days of good weather forecast. I slept the night of the 29th at the west end of Laguna de los Tres, and on the 30th took another leisurely day hiking to the bergschrund below La Brecha. Spending two days of perfect weather leisurely approaching may seem like a waste of time, but I knew the mountains needed at least that much time to clean themselves of all the fresh snow. Similarly, when my alarm went off on the last day of 2015 it was already light. I knew that the California Route would get a touch of sun early in the morning, and clean a tiny bit more, and I also felt that the warmer temperatures of a late start would be key to climbing bare-handed and having the confidence to free-solo. I crossed the bergschrund at the civilized hour of 6:53am.
I had arrived calmly and easily to the Brecha within 45 minutes, and soon was traversing towards La Silla Americana. While the snowy conditions would slow things down on the rock, they were at least a boon on this terrain, where often the traverse requires icy frontpointing for its entirety. Looking up the first pitches of the California Route from La Silla Americana, I was dismayed by how little they had cleaned of snow in the preceding days. Wearing rock shoes was out of the question. I wasn’t sure if it would still be reasonable to solo these pitches in crampons, but I knew it would be easy enough to rappel the California Route if need be, so I figured I’d give it a shot.
I was consistently disappointed by how snowy the conditions were, but also consistently pleased and encouraged by how well I felt with the climbing, and made good progress. The hardest pitch of the California Route is the last pitch before it joins the Supercanaleta, which fortunately was also the only pitch dry enough to wear rock shoes. For the entire ascent I never did any proper self-belaying, although I did make two little rappels/tension-traverses, and I did quite a bit of daisy-soloing. This worked well only because all the hardest moves occur where there are good cracks.
I reached the summit of Chalten at 4:56 pm, ten hours and a few minutes after crossing the bergschrund, and quickly began my descent of the Franco. The descent, which I made with a single 80m 5.5mm rope, went smoothly. I was back below the bergschrund before 9pm, and back at my tent roughly fourteen and a half hours after departing.
My lasting feeling from my solo of the California Route is of how relaxed, calm and in control the entire climb and descent felt. I had soloed Chaltén once before, in January 2009 via the Supercanaleta (making me now the second person to have soloed Chaltén twice, joining Dean Potter). The day that I soloed the Supercanaleta remains probably the most physically and psychologically draining day that I have ever experienced. Not only did I solo the Supercanaleta in poor weather and conditions, but my climbing ability at the time meant that it was an extremely serious solo for me. It was fun to return and have a drastically different experience.
3. SUPERCANALETA CAR-TO-CAR, JANUARY 6
[Editor’s Note: I’m no longer on a bus from El Chaltén to El Calafate. After three busy weeks with no time to write, I’m now in an apartment in Chamonix Sud, after an incredibly good week of skiing.]
A few days after my solo of the California Route, and just a couple days before another weather window, my friend Andy Wyatt arrived from Seattle to do some climbing together. Andy has considerably less alpine climbing experience than most of my Patagonia climbing partners, but he’s a great friend and a great companion in the mountains. He’s also someone with a very high level of general fitness, so I suggested we try an objective for which fitness is a limiting factor, that Rolo had mentioned to me a few years earlier: climb Chaltén in a day roundtrip from town. I think that in general the original French route and its variations are probably the fastest overall route on Chaltén, but the still snowy conditions made us opt for the Supercanaleta.
We took a taxi on the evening of January 5 from town to the bridge over Rio Electrico, then hit the timer and started hiking at 10:15pm. During the night we crossed over Paso del Cuadrado, and crossed the bergschrund at the base of the Supercanaleta at 3:40am. For Andy, someone with vastly more rock climbing experience than alpine climbing experience, simul-soloing up 1,000 meters of snow and ice gully was probably the crux of the day, but fortunately conditions were pretty good and it went fairly quickly. At the top of the gully we roped up for the fifth-class climbing above, and simul-climbed from there to the summit slopes. If my memory is correct, I believe we did the fifth-class climbing in four pitches of simul-climbing.
We arrived on the summit at 11:14am, about seven and a half hours after crossing the bergschrund. This was my tenth ascent of Chaltén, and Andy’s first. Andy was understandably excited to be there and soak up the view, but I reminded him that our goal for the day was a fast ascent, and ushered us off the summit before too long. The descent went smoothly if not quickly, and before too long we were wringing out our socks and drying our boots in the sun at the western edge of Laguna de los Tres. After a very leisurely 40 minute break, we switched from boots back into the running shoes we had carried over the mountain, and started the hike out to the road. After doing much of the climb and descent at a pretty relaxed pace, and after taking such a long post-descent rest stop, it seemed silly to then start running, but nonetheless we got adequately excited (in my case aided by my iPod shuffle) and ran about half the trail out to the road. Running in our underwear, with no shirts on, with ice tools and ropes on the outsides of our packs, I think we got plenty of shocked reactions from tourists on the trail. We arrived to the road, at Hosteria El Pilar, at 7:23pm, 21 hours and 8 minutes after starting.
Climbing Chaltén car-to-car was an incredibly fun day, but left me with a bit of regret, as I know it could’ve easily been under 18 hours car-to-car if we had put in a proper effort. Well, there’s always next time! 😉 I was e-mailing with Josh Wharton, who asked if we had used any pre-cached gear on our car-to-car climb, and pointed out that he thought it would be “invalid salad” if so. Before our climb I had thought it unfortunate that I didn’t have any gear cached on that side of the Massif, but Josh is probably right, that speed records should not involve any pre-cached gear for the duration of what is timed.
4. CERRO SOLO, “EL DRAGÓN,” JANUARY 8
[Editor’s note: I’m in the same apartment in Chamonix Sud. The powder skiing is now long gone, but I’ve now been climbing a lot in the Mont Blanc Massif under sunny skies. The Patagonia season, while only a couple months past, now feels like a long time ago.]
The daytrip of the Supercanaleta involved about 3,500 meters of elevation gain and loss, and a lot of distance, resulting in pretty tired legs afterwards. I would’ve happily rested if the weather was poor, but I’ve spent enough time in Patagonia during periods of bad weather to have built up plenty of motivation to use the good weather as best as I can when it comes. Thus, after only one rest day, I headed out just after sunrise on January 8 towards Cerro Solo.
The north ridge of Cerro Solo is a line I had been eyeing for years, and had nearly gone to attempt a few times. I had always imagined it as being quite moderate, perhaps 5.6 or so, so I had usually envisioned going there on a day of mediocre weather and climbing it in boots, when harder objectives would be out of the question. In the end I’m very glad to have finally climbed the route in perfect weather, and with a pair of rock shoes, as the difficulty was much greater than I had anticipated.
In mid morning I arrived at the col at the base of Cerro Solo’s north ridge, which I’m pretty sure has never been visited before, so I took the liberty of naming it “Puff-Puff Pass,” – A clever name that my brother Booth had come up with, and which I’d promised him I would someday apply to a virgin col. It was already clear from the col that the route would be more difficult than expected, but I figured there would probably be some ways to sneak around the most imposing steps, so I switched from boots and crampons into rock shoes, and started up. The rock was very poor, and the climbing was almost immediately quite engaging. It was not long at all that the nature of my day changed from a nonchalant day in the mountains to very serious climbing. I was constantly trying to find easier options to the right or to the left, but ended up staying on the crest of the ridge the entire way. I hadn’t brought a rope or any hardware, and started to feel very committed. I’m sure that if my life depended on it I could’ve reversed any of the moves, but several steps were difficult enough that I really dreaded the possibility of having to downclimb them. I wished badly that I had brought a chalk bag, and breathed a big sigh of relief when I crested onto third-class terrain about two-thirds of the way up the ridge. My relief was temporary, however, as a sting-in-the-tail step near the top provided equally difficult climbing as before.
The north ridge arrived almost directly to Cerro Solo’s summit – I switched from rock shoes back to boots only about fifty vertical meters below. The descent down the normal route was easy and fast, although marred by some very slushy snow. As I’ve often found is the case with tired muscles, my legs felt better and better throughout the day with more exercise, and in fact I ended up running most of the hike back to town afterwards.
I have named the route “El Dragón.” It involved about 350 meters of vertical gain from Puff-Puff Pass to Cerro Solo’s summit, and I’d call the difficulties 5.8R, although I think that grade belies the seriousness and difficulty of the route. For example, I have also soloed the Argentine Route on Aguja Mermoz, which is 600m and with difficulties to 5.10, but the north ridge of Cerro Solo felt at least as serious to me. That is probably partly because of the loose rock (compared to bomber granite), and partly because on Cerro Solo I was climbing onsight and completely ropeless, but in any event it felt like some of the more bold free-soloing that I’ve done. Of course one’s mental state on a solo ascent might affect one’s impression of the climbing, and I look forward to El Dragón seeing a repeat, not that I can truly recommend it for the quality of the climbing, compared to other routes in the massif.
5. CERRO HUEMUL, JANUARY 10
After Cerro Solo I once again had a paltry single day of rest, and was back out for yet another big daytrip on January 10 with Andy. Andy didn’t feel much like technical climbing, so we headed to an objective that I knew would be a big adventure despite little technical terrain: Cerro Huemul. Cerro Huemul is a big, bulky mountain, somewhat isolated on the southern end of the Chaltén Massif, that I had wanted to visit for years. The evening before departing, Rolo Garibotti tipped us off that perhaps the true summit had never been reached – exciting! Cerro Huemul held an additional appeal for me in that it’s a mountain with a fairly long approach on good trail, and therefore a good objective to do with Andy, who pushes me to go harder on the trail running.
Desperate for a couple more hours of sleep in my already-tired state, we began the approach to Cerro Huemul (the trailhead is at the ranger station) at a fairly civilized hour – roughly 8am if I remember correctly. Taking only running shoes, and carrying little more than some clothing, food and water, we power-hiked up the initial big hills, and then started running, over a broad ridge and down into the Rio Toro valley. To get to Cerro Huemul from the tourist trail one must cross the Rio Toro, which is typically done upstream from Laguna Toro, where the river is braided and shallow, but which makes for a circuitous route. Andy, much more experienced in river crossings than I had realized, insisted we could cross at the lake outlet, which would make for a much more direct route. I was skeptical of the crossing, and was happy for him to go first. Andy was right, and the crossing went just fine, but with chest-deep, fast-flowing water coming straight from the Hielo Continental, it was one of the more exciting moments of the day!
The “normal” route on Cerro Huemul climbs up a huge, north-facing valley, and is basically a test of fitness and motivation, as it is essentially a steep scree slope that gains 1,350 meters of elevation. After a lot of effort and nothing more technical than some easy scrambling, we arrived on Cerro Huemul’s north summit, and I could immediately understand Rolo’s tip that the true summit had perhaps never been reached. Only about ten meters higher than the north summit, the true summit was a steep gendarme, separated from the north summit by a couple hundred meters of traversing on steep, exposed ridge, composed of very crumbly rock. Without rock shoes or any technical equipment, Andy was not interested in attempting the traverse to the true summit, and at first I felt the same way. However, after eyeing it for a few minutes I decided to at least go have a look. The traverse to the true summit was definitely engaging in running shoes, and I took my time on the crumbly rock, but it was fortunately easier than it had looked from the north summit. I thought 4th-class, but repeated this section of ridge two weeks later with Alex Honnold, who told me that 4th-class was a sandbag, and we settled on a rating of 5.2X.
I reversed the ridge traverse back to Andy, waiting patiently on the north summit, and we started dropping the 1,350 meters of elevation back down to Rio Toro. The middle section of the valley still held a long snow couloir, and the snow was just barely soft enough for us to descend it in our running shoes – a wonderful gift of respite from the scree. The day’s second crossing of the Rio Toro went easily, with less apprehension than the morning’s crossing, and soon we were running the Laguna Toro trail back towards the ranger station. The final several kilometers of trail are all downhill, and Andy was kind enough to go at my slower pace. When only a few hundred meters remained between us and the ranger station, with Rammstein on my headphones, I started sprinting just for the fun of it. Unfortunately, in my sprinting frenzy I stubbed my toe incredibly hard on a rock in the middle of the trail. I of course went down hard on my hands and knees, but the lasting injury was to my toe itself – still sore two months after the fact, I think that I might’ve broken it. Andy stopped the watch when we reached the ranger station, 11:54 since departing that morning, and I personally think that is a much more impressive time than we did on the Supercanaleta.
Although I can’t yet say for sure, it seems very likely that I made the first true ascent of Cerro Huemul – Rather surprising for a big mountain that sits right above a town full of climbers, and surprising again since the north summit was the first alpine summit ever reached in the Chaltén Massif (almost exactly 100 years earlier). Although the technical difficulties are minimal, the true summit is not an easy summit to reach, because one must either carry the technical climbing gear a very long ways, or have a high enough technical climbing ability to free-solo it. If I have indeed made the first true ascent, I am proud to say that it is then the fifth summit in the Chaltén Massif of which I’ve made the first ascent, the other four being Torre Piergiorgio, Cerro Marconi Central, Torrisimo and the cumbre roja of Cerro Electrico.
6. TORRE EGGER AND PUNTA HERRON, SOLO, JANUARY 19
[Editor’s note: Same apartment in Chamonix Sud. For the first time since my arrival in Chamonix the weather and conditions are neither great for skiing nor great for climbing, so I’ve got the “Requiem for a Dream” soundtrack on repeat, and am determined to finally finish this blog post…]
Sometime around 2008, before the launch of the Pataclimb website, I remember learning with surprise, thanks to my friendship with Rolo Garibotti, that Aguja Standhardt had never seen a solo ascent. Tommy Bonapace, a Patagonia veteran from Austria, had made a strong attempt in 1994, but no one else had tried. It became a major goal of mine, and a couple years later, in November 2010, I succeeded in this goal. With a solo ascent of Aguja Standhardt completed, I set my sights on a much loftier goal: Torre Egger.
Over the past five years I have spent a lot of time scheming and daydreaming about how to solo Torre Egger. I originally thought that the east pillar would be the best route, as did Alex Huber in his scheming for soloing Torre Egger, but after climbing the route in December 2011, with Jorge Ackermann, I began to realize that it wasn’t the best option, and I eventually settled on the “normal” route on Torre Egger: first up Punta Herron via “Spigolo dei Bimbi,” and then up the north side of Torre Egger via the “Huber-Schnarf.”
I knew from the beginning that Torre Egger was technically difficult enough that I would have to do a fair amount of rope-soloing, and with that in mind I spent a bunch of the 2011 northern-hemisphere summer honing my rope-soloing techniques in Squamish. The 2011-2012 Patagonia season was the first season that I went down with serious intentions of trying to solo Torre Egger. In one week in December 2011, in some smaller weather windows, I made solo ascents of Aguja Rafael, Aguja St. Exupery and Aguja de l’S – This was partly a “warm-up” for my ambitions on Torre Egger, and partly the completion of a collector’s project I’d dreamed up, to solo all seven of the major summits in the Chaltén ridgeline.
I never ended up making a solo attempt on Torre Egger during the 2011-2012 season, and neither did I during the following three seasons, although I was often hoping for the combination of good weather and conditions that would give me the confidence to try. During these four years I slowly lost an interest in rope-soloing, realizing that I strongly prefer soloing objectives technically easy enough to free solo. I kept taking the specialized equipment for rope soloing to Chaltén each year, only for my Torre Egger dream. My distaste for rope soloing, combined with a lot of apprehension about being up on such a big, radical mountain alone, was countered by my deep desire to accomplish the goal, and the psychological pendulum swung back and forth. A couple times I hiked into the Torre Valley with the intention of starting up on Torre Egger alone, only to realize that the conditions weren’t good enough, the weather wasn’t good enough, or that I didn’t have the courage.
Following a stint of high-altitude climbing in Nepal this past autumn, I spent November 2015 in Las Vegas, trying to get in a lot of rock climbing to prepare myself for the upcoming Patagonia season. Knowing that I would have some time in Patagonia without a dedicated partner, I started to get excited once again about the Torre Egger solo dream. Having not done any rope-soloing in a long time, I hiked into Black Velvet Canyon alone one morning to go brush up my techniques on a multi-pitch sport climb, “Prince of Darkness.” I joyfully free-soloed up the very easy first pitch, and then headed up the second pitch self-belaying. My joy quickly turned to frustration, never feeling very confident in the self-belay system, and lamenting the labour of rope-soloing, in which the same pitch must be ascended twice, and there is always a big cluster of equipment attached to your body. After just two pitches of the route, and only one pitch of rope-soloing, I rapped off, convinced that I was done with rope-soloing once and for all, and that it was time to forget about the Torre Egger solo dream.
It is perplexing and amazing how quickly we can change our tune sometimes. Just two months after writing off my Torre Egger dream once and for all, I hiked into Niponino on January 17, feeling more excited and more confident about soloing Torre Egger than I ever had before. The forecast looked quite good, the conditions looked quite good, and I knew from the past that my feeling of confidence might not always be there in the future. My mantra was “Now or never.”
When my alarm went off at Niponino on the morning of January 18, it was raining. My plan had been to leave Niponino early and start up the climb, planning for a light bivy somewhere up high and to reach Torre Egger’s summit on January 19. I knew I wasn’t going to start up Torre Egger, especially alone, in the rain, so I went back to sleep. When I woke up I shuffled about in Niponino, chatting with my friends Korra and Tomy, who had similarly cancelled their early-morning departure due to the unexpected bad weather. By midday the skies were clear, and still buoyed by the high of confidence, I reformulated my tactics for a one-day ascent on the 19th, and leisurely hiked up to a higher camp at the Noruegos bivouac.
I set my alarm for around midnight, and at roughly 12:45am on January 19 I departed Noruegos, with two ropes, a significant rack, boots, crampons, ice axes, rock shoes, chalk bag, three liters of water, food and clothing. I’m not sure exactly, but I think I reached the Standhardt Col, the start of the real climbing, at about 4:00am. The start of my climb followed the same terrain as “Exocet,” the classic route up Aguja Standhardt, and terrain that I had soloed in 2010. The first pitch above the col is a pitch of slabby rock that I have normally climbed in crampons, and had fully self-belayed in 2010. Aided by nearly dry rock, I instead switched into rock shoes and free-soloed up the pitch, pulling my pack up after me. After a quick tension traverse, I switched back into crampons, and started across the big ramps on Standhardt’s east face. One of the tricky aspects of conditions for climbing the “normal” route on Torre Egger is that in recent years, when the rock is dry on Spigolo dei Bimbi and the Huber-Schnarf, the ramps on Standhardt’s east face are significantly melted out. This was again the case, and in several places where one can often romp quickly and easily across soft snow, I was instead making delicate moves on rock slab. After making the 30-meter rappel halfway across the ramp system, I was again slowed down, not by rock slab, but hard ice in lieu of névé. I wasted a bunch of time and energy swinging my picks into a long traverse of 60-degree ice, and then was finally relieved to find névé again, and could finish the ramp system with my axes in dagger position.
I reached the top of the ramp system, the southeast arête of Aguja Standhardt, at 6:00am. From here I made double-rope rappels down a portion of Aguja Standhardt’s south face, to gain the last pitch of Tobogán. Across the ramp system on Standhardt’s east face I had been carrying both ropes inside my backpack, and while clipping my pack into my first rappel anchor I had a sudden flash of the seriousness of what I was doing: A mistake as simple as dropping my backpack while clipping it to the anchor would mean almost certain death. After quickly and easily ascending the last pitch of Tobogán up to the Col dei Sogni (the col between Aguja Standhardt and Punta Herron), I was once again switching into rock shoes and racking up for my first bout of rope-soloing, at roughly 8:00am.
Although I had climbed Spigolo dei Bimbi a few times before, I had never led the rock pitches, and I was very pleasantly surprised by how confident I felt on them. Rope-soloing is inevitably slow, but by climbing fast and often taking big runouts, I felt like I was making good time. Rather than carry ascenders and switch between rock shoes and boots at every belay, I opted to instead re-climb each pitch with a microtraxion top-rope belay. Heeding the advice of Alik Berg, a Canadian friend very experienced in rope-soloing, I often passed the standard belay spots to instead make full 60-meter pitches. At about 11:15, after a bit more than three hours in rock shoes and four long pitches of rope-soloing, I was snacking and once again switching into crampons. I free-soloed up the moderate ice of Punta Herron’s summit rime mushrooms, arriving on the summit of the mountain, for its first solo ascent, just past noon.
After one double-rope rappel into the Col de Lux (the col between Punta Herron and Torre Egger), I scrambled up a pitch of blocky 4th class, and then slipped my rock shoes on for the third time, at the base of the Huber-Schnarf route. I racked up for rope-soloing once again, and made two rope-stretching pitches up Torre Egger’s upper north arête. The day had become very warm, and as I climbed up the Huber-Schnarf I was bombarded by an increasingly large volume of rime chunks from the mushrooms above. Nothing big enough to be dangerous fell, but I was definitely worried about the possibility. The third pitch of the Huber-Schnarf is normally a completely horizontal traverse leftwards underneath the rime mushrooms, which is of course difficult terrain for rope-soloing. To deal with this, I climbed the first portion of the traverse while still on my second pitch, and then made a belay much higher than normal, from ice screws and abolokow threads at the base of the rime mushrooms. For the third pitch, rather than classic rope-soloing I used a sort of “back-loop” system, tied into one end of the rope, and belaying myself on the other strand with the Gri-Gri, first making a tension traverse down and left from my ice belay, and then free-climbing further left, occasionally stopping to pay out more slack. The barrage of rime chunks had become somewhat frightening while finishing the leftward traverse, and the rock was also pouring with running water. I made a final rock belay in an overlap, and forced myself to very slowly and carefully switch back into boots and crampons – Not an easy task at a hanging belay while getting drenched, but dropping a crampon, or especially a boot, would be very, very bad news. I made one final pitch of rope-soloing, first with a bit of “mixed” climbing (right foot on rock, left foot on ice), and then up an easy sheet of ice to an ice-screw anchor. No portion of the Torre Egger rime mushrooms was very difficult, but a short step of vertical rime did require a fair amount of time to dig a half-pipe deep enough to feel secure.
I reached the summit of Torre Egger at 5:18pm, about sixteen-and-a-half hours after leaving Noruegos. I was drenched, tired and hungry, but in all my years of scheming for this goal I had never imagined pulling it off so quickly and easily. I was truly happy with my performance, but of course didn’t linger long – Not only is Torre Egger the most difficult mountain to climb in the Chaltén Massif, but it’s also the most difficult to descend. I wasted nearly half an hour climbing all over the summit area looking for good ice to make an abalokow, before finally giving up and finding a big rime mushroom to put my rappel ropes around directly.
As I’m sure anyone who has rappelled the south face of Torre Egger would agree, it is a fairly intense series of rappels. The rappels are very long, exceptionally steep, and the wall is mostly a mix of dead-vertical blank granite interspersed with dead-vertical rime. On the second-to-last rappel down to the Col de la Mentira (my name for the col between Torre Egger and Cerro Torre), I got really unlucky and had the worst stuck rappel-rope scenario that I’ve ever experienced. On a completely vertical, full 60m rappel, the ropes somehow got very stuck after pulling down only a couple meters of my skinny rappel rope. Because the terrain above was overhanging, I couldn’t retrieve the end of my lead rope, which was now hanging in the air a couple meters above me. I spent literally 1.5 to 2 hours bouncing as hard as I could on my rappel rope with a microtraxion, pulling it down only a few centimeters at a time. It was completely exhausting, and I was also stuck in a spot in which I was getting drenched by yet more running water. For a while I was really, really worried that I would be descending the lower east face of Cerro Torre with only 20 meters of 5.5mm rope… That is an extremely scary thought, and it was honestly one of the most stressful, terrifying situations I’ve ever experienced. In the process of bouncing on the end of the rappel rope (setting up a pulley system would’ve been better, but there was no place to set an upward-pull anchor), my rappel rope lost all of the sheath in a whole bunch of large sections. It was nonetheless a humongous relief to finally pull the ropes down, and be able to continue the descent in a relatively normal fashion.
I finally arrived at the Col de la Mentira quite shell-shocked, with one intact rope, one rope in tatters, and my clothing absolutely drenched. In the last rays of the sunlight I stripped briefly down to nothing on my upper body, so that I could wring as much water out of my layers as possible. I bundled back up, and free-soloed a moderate mixed pitch at the base of Cerro Torre’s north face while mildly hypothermic (it doesn’t work to rappel directly down from the col).
Because my rappel rope was so damaged, I had to complete the remaining twenty-or-so rappels rappelling on just my lead line, with my rappel rope being used just as a pull-line. It was an additional hassle on an already difficult descent, but I nonetheless felt very grateful to be able to make 60m rappels at all. I reached the glacier sometime shortly after 2:00am, and descended back to my sleeping bag at Noruegos, arriving something like 26 hours after departing.
On the 20th I made my way down the loose boulders from Noruegos to Niponino, and then out the long glacier to Laguna Torre. Not until hitting the tourist trail on the south side of Laguna Torre did I finally allow myself to fully relax and feel joy for my accomplishment. I hiked out with the aid of my iPod, as usual, knowing I had just completed one of the best achievements of my life, if not the best.
The same day that I was soloing Torre Egger, my friends Korra Pesce and Tomy Aguilo were climbing “Golden Eagle” on Aguja Desmochada. By lucky chance, Korra happened to be on a climb with a good view of Torre Egger, and happened to have a point-and-shoot camera with a particularly powerful zoom. He was able to capture this cool sequence of photos of me climbing the “Huber-Schnarf” route to the summit of Torre Egger:
7. CERRO HUEMUL, “END OF FAITH,” JANUARY 26
A couple days after I returned from Torre Egger, Alex Honnold arrived in Chaltén for some climbing together, and a day or two later we headed out for his alpine warm-up. The east ridge of Cerro Huemul is a very grand and obvious feature, clearly visible from all around the town of El Chaltén. It is an objective that I had already pondered for a few years, but became a higher priority after getting to see it up close with Andy.
Alex and I took a taxi very early in the morning on January 26, from town to Bahía Túnel, starting our hike from the shore of Lago Viedma. After crossing the outlet of the Rio Toro on a well-established tyrolean, we briefly followed a trail, and then soon starting tromping towards Cerro Huemul in the darkness. The approach, which was essentially a broad lower extension of the east ridge, was pretty cool terrain that almost no one ever sees, with some cool sections of funky sedimentary rock. We hadn’t brought any technical climbing hardware, just crampons and ice axe each for the sections of snowy ridge that I knew we would encounter. I wouldn’t normally head to such a long ridge of unknown difficulty with a partner and no hardware, but I definitely didn’t need to worry about Alex being uncomfortable with any free-soloing that I’m comfortable with.
We started up Cerro Huemul’s east ridge shortly before first light. It was the perfect objective for simul-soloing with a strong partner, because the length of the climb and poor nature of the rock would’ve made climbing with a rope problematic. We climbed over several small sub-summits along the way, and were able to traverse around others. We put on crampons for two sections of snowy ridge, and otherwise climbed in our approach shoes. We reached the summit at 1:35pm, for what I believe to be Cerro Huemul’s second-ever ascent, and then repeated the same section of ridge that I had done before, between the main summit and the north summit. I had brought a pair of rock shoes with me this time, expecting some sections of the east ridge to be trickier than what I had climbed on Cerro Huemul before, but it turned out to be all of similar difficulty.
We named our route “End of Faith,” and estimated the vertical gain of technical climbing to be 1,000m, and the technical difficulty to be 5.2X. It is a huge route of moderate climbing on mostly low-quality rock, that many modern climbers wouldn’t appreciate, and wouldn’t be good at. I thought it was a really cool route, with consistently awesome views over Lago Viedma, and one that crusty old-farts like myself might really enjoy repeating. The 1,350 meters of descent from the north summit to Rio Toro was memorable mostly for our discussions, of which the most consistent topics were vegetarianism and religion. It was a fairly chilly day, and thus the crossing of Rio Toro was quite mellow, and then we trotted back to town on the tourist trail.
8. TORRE TRAVERSE IN A DAY, JANUARY 31
[Editor’s note: For writing this section I have just changed my music from “Requiem for a Dream” on repeat to Tool’s “Stinkfist” on repeat, which is the song I associate with the two big climbs that Alex and I did this season together.]
For at least nine months before teaming up together in Patagonia this year, Alex and I had only one certain goal for the season: The Torre Traverse in a day. We attempted and nearly succeeded on this awesome objective the year before (Chapter 9 here: http://colinhaley.com/chalten-2014-2015/), and knew quite soon afterwards that we wanted to come back and finish it properly. Thus, with a good forecast and good conditions, we hiked into the Torre Valley on January 29 (only two rest days after Cerro Huemul) with a very set plan. In fact, the plan was perhaps more set than on any other alpine climb I’ve ever done. Alex likened our Torre Traverse to El Cap speed climbing, and I think the analogy makes sense. I think that by now I am more familiar with the ridgeline of the Torres than anyone else on Earth, and even Alex had already climbed the middle section, over Punta Herron and Torre Egger, twice. Not only did we know the terrain very well, but having attempted this exact objective in the same style one year earlier, we could make very specific plans as to our techniques and strategy. We knew exactly who would lead where. We knew where we would simul-climb, and where we would short-fix. We knew that Alex would lower me on the first 30m rappel (on the ramp system on Standhardt’s east face) while being pulled up on counter-balance. We knew the order in which we would tag each summit. We had rough plans for where most of our belays would be located, and specific plans for some of them. For one of the belays, near the end of the Huber-Schnarf, I was even able to tell Alex exactly which three cams to save and what order to place them in the overlap, having soloed the route only about ten days earlier. The one big change in technique compared to our attempt the year before is that Alex had sufficiently demonstrated to me and convinced me that simul-rappelling was the way to go. So, for all but one rappel (a very awkward one off the south side of Punta Herron) we planned to simul-rappel.
Our approach to Niponino on January 29 we took at a nice, relaxed pace, and while hiking we reviewed our strategy out loud. Similarly, on January 30, we took a half rest day, leisurely hiking from Niponino up to a bivouac on the glacier, below the east pillar of Aguja Standhardt. On January 31 we must’ve set our alarm for about 1am, because we left our bivouac and started the timer on Alex’s iPhone at 1:42am. With our packs laden with a bunch of gear and four liters of water each, and not wanting to expend too much energy too early, we hiked up the glacier and climbed up the couloir to the Standhardt Col at a relaxed pace. I finally started up the first pitch at 3:20am, 1:38 after leaving our tent.
We simul-climbed from the Standhardt Col to the base of Exocet’s first hard pitch (taking a right-hand variation which avoid’s the first pitch of the Exocet chimney), meeting up only twice to exchange gear. The first 60 meters of the Exocet chimney I led and Alex jugged in a traditional fashion, in order to maximize the time he could spend at a protected belay ledge. From that belay I short-fixed the remainder of the Exocet chimney (which involved some very serious runouts with only seven total ice screws) and simul-climbed through the slabby mixed pitch above. The last pitch of simul-climbing involved traversing to the summit mushroom, climbing it to the summit and lowering myself back to the base of the summit mushroom, where I could simultaneously belay Alex and start making an abolokow anchor. By the time Alex tagged the summit, 4:09 had elapsed from the Standhardt Col (I’m pretty sure that’s a speed record for the route – We took 5.5 hours the year before) and we had met up at only five belay stances.
From the summit of Standhardt we made excellent time to the base of Spigolo dei Bimbi, as a result of simul-rappelling and a traversing final rappel which allowed us to arrive right at the base of Spigolo dei Bimbi, rather than climbing up the final pitch of Tobogán. We changed into rock shoes, and it was therefore Alex’s turn to lead. We simul-climbed all the rock of Spigolo dei Bimbi in two pitches. The first time that I simul-climbed this block with Alex I was pretty freaked out to be simul-climbing wet/icy 5.10 with a pack, and Alex had to wait for me several times. This time I was fast and confident, and never held up Alex – I had climbed each of these pitches twice only twelve days earlier, so hilariously I remembered a bunch of individual moves, way up on Punta Herron!
At the top of the rock on Spigolo dei Bimbi we snacked, sucked water out of a puddle, and switched back into crampons. I led one pitch of simul-climbing to Punta Herron’s summit and down the other side to our rappel anchor. Just as I had been faster simul-climbing the rock than last time, Alex was faster simul-climbing the ice than he had been the year before. 3:11 elapsed from the time Alex reached the summit of Standhardt to the time he reached the summit of Punta Herron.
We made a double-rope rappel into the Col de Lux, and while Alex pulled down the lead line I tied into it and led up to the base of the Huber-Schnarf. Before long we were in rock shoes again, and Alex led off again. We simul-climbed all the rock of the Huber-Schnarf in one pitch, and soon were dangling from the same overlap, awkwardly changing back into crampons at our hanging stance, me constantly reminding us both how fucked up it would be to drop a boot. I led the summit mushrooms of Torre Egger in one pitch, and by the time Alex tagged the summit of Torre Egger 2:06 had elapsed since he had tagged the summit of Punta Herron.
Rappelling the south face of Torre Egger felt full-on as usual, but went fast with simul-rappelling and fortunately involved none of the stuck-rope nightmare that I had experienced 12 days earlier. Just like in the Col de Lux, while Alex pulled the lead line down from the final rappel into the Col de la Mentira I tied into the end and led one mixed pitch up to the proper base of Cerro Torre’s north face. We took a fairly relaxed break at the base of Directa de la Mentira, and by the time Alex started up the first pitch 1:44 had elapsed since he had tagged the summit of Torre Egger.
Realizing from my first two times on it that the first pitch of Directa de la Mentira is pretty much always in nasty condition, and that even Alex does some aid climbing on it, we modified our strategy slightly for me to stay in boots for one more pitch and jumar it. We re-joined at the top of the first pitch, after some lost time due to a stuck cam, and Alex blasted off. The year before we had very challenging conditions on Directa de la Mentira due to verglas. This time verglas was not an issue, but the very warm temperatures delivered a different problem: water, tons of it. Many of the cracks were gushing torrents, and we were quickly very wet. The water was of course also accompanied by a rain of rime chunks coming off the ice mushrooms above. We had breezed over Standhardt, Herron and Egger in relative calm, and now were getting the full-on experience that the Torres usually deliver. Alex did a predictably amazing job of leading the pitches quickly, taking huge runouts and going monstrous distances between making belays. While not at all the same thing as leading, I’d say that I also did a good job of simul-climbing behind him quickly. Despite relatively warm temperatures, at belays we were freezing cold due to being so wet.
The last pitch of rock on the north face is a pitch that had been among my block the year before, since it has a lot of rime plastered to the rock and is therefore an affair mostly of hacking away at the rime and aid-climbing the rock underneath. From my solo of Torre Egger twelve days earlier I had seen that it had less rime this year, so we had talked about the possibility of Alex including this pitch at the end of his block. As I followed the last long pitch of simul-climbing with numb fingers and toes, I looked forward to this change. At the belay I asked Alex if he still wanted to take it, and the response was something like “Fuck that, I’m done.” I was definitely disappointed, but also understood completely, considering the block he had just led. This was pretty much the moment at which we stopped speed-climbing, and simply got into the classic alpine mode of suffering our way up. I was literally shaking with cold while leading this last pitch of rock, and Alex, while relieved of the sharp end, was even colder while waiting patiently at the belay.
Alex jugged up to the belay at the top of the rock, we both put on crampons, wrung whatever water we could out of our clothes, and prepared ourselves to battle hypothermia en route to the summit. I led one last pitch of rime on the north face, Alex jugged off my belay loop, then I lowered him twenty meters down the other side to join the Ragni route, and I downclimbed behind. The sun dropped below the horizon, and I short-fixed up to the base of the last pitch.
The last pitch of the Ragni route is an infamous pitch when in virgin conditions. It had fortunately already seen several ascents in the past weeks, but was nonetheless not in nearly as easy of condition as it had been the year before, or during some other recent seasons. In addition to no longer being the easy romp that it had been in 2015 and 2013, being west-facing the pitch had been baking in the sun all afternoon, and having only gone into shade about 45 minutes earlier, was still a dripping, slushy mess. Alex got comfortable at the belay, and I headed up. The serious part of the pitch was the first half, as there was no protection. Above, I was relieved to get several decent ice screws before a traverse on vertical rime. The last crux was thankfully on good ice, but was slightly overhanging. A few steep moves that would’ve normally been no big deal suddenly felt very serious, as after about 2,500 meters of climbing earlier in the day my lock-off strength seemed to be failing. A couple moves were about as desperate as I’ve ever made on ice, swinging my tool into a good placement just before it felt like I couldn’t hold the lock-off any longer.
While Alex battled a particularly intense pitch of jugging – including a big pendulum into space in the darkness – I was getting blasted by cold wind above. In still wet clothes I was shaking from the cold, and I eventually untied from the rope and traversed to a nook below the summit mushroom, where I could wait somewhat protected from the wind. I turned off my headlamp to save battery, and just stood there watching the stars, in state that was one part elation, one part extreme fatigue, and one part hypothermia.
When I started to see light from Alex’s headlamp bouncing off the rime features below, I traversed back to the anchor and tied back into the rope. Alex arrived and we climbed up to the summit, arriving at exactly midnight, 20:40 since leaving the Standhardt Col. We had taken 9:26 from the base of Directa de la Mentira.
We spent the rest of the night and the first part of the morning rappelling Cerro Torre’s southeast ridge. It’s a very long and time-consuming descent no matter what, our energy for speed was long gone, and our rappel rope developed a bad core shot only two rappels down, preventing us from simul-rappelling. Like many nocturnal sessions of rappelling I’ve made in Patagonia, the memory is a blur of anchors and dehydration and shivering. We reached our tent on the glacier 9:59 after arriving on Cerro Torre’s summit, and a little more than 32 hours after departing.
Back at our tent we quickly ran out of fuel, and without the water our bodies needed it didn’t make much sense to stay long, so we packed up and hiked down to Niponino. Alex wanted to hike out directly and I wanted to take a nap. We ate and drank as we organized gear, and soon I was forced onto Alex’s program, as the weather was rapidly deteriorating. By the time we arrived in town we had done an enormous amount of exercise and had been awake for about 45 hours.
I feel that the Torres Traverse in a day was a beautiful “redpoint” of alpine climbing, and I’d say the most awesome and radical day of climbing I’ve ever had. Success was hugely dependent on the prior experiences we’ve accumulated on these mountains, and also hugely dependent on each of our individual skill sets, that are the result of each of us dedicating most of our lives thus far to climbing. Alex and I made a great partnership for this project, a very efficient symbiosis of alpinist and rock climber, as neither he nor I would’ve had even a chance to climb the Torres Traverse in a day without the other.
9. WAVE EFFECT IN A DAY, FEBRUARY 6
[Editor’s note: I’m now writing in a restaurant in Arvier, Aosta Valley, Italy. Tomorrow I start my first ever ski mountaineering race, and I have a couple hours available here in the corner of this restaurant. I’ve got my headphones on, and “Stinkfist” is on repeat again.]
Following the Torre Traverse, Alex and I arrived back in the town of El Chaltén late on February 1. We had two rest days in town, February 2 and 3, although not surprisingly Alex insisted that we go climb a multipitch 5.12 sport route on one of our rest days. On February 4 we were hiking back to Niponino. In the time leading up to our Patagonia trip, there was only one objective we had discussed in addition to the Torre Traverse: the Wave Effect. Although not as famous as the Torre Traverse, the Wave Effect is also a badass enchainment of towers. Established in 2011 by Whit Magro, Nate Opp and Josh Wharton, it climbs the southern aspects of Aguja Desmochada, Aguja de la Silla and Chaltén. On February 3, Alex and I hemmed and hawed about our options. There was a lot of discussion about attempting something smaller, since both of us felt quite tired. However, trained by plenty of experience with bad weather and bad conditions in Patagonia, I cut to the chase: “The forecast is good, the conditions are good… The only reason we’re wavering about the Wave Effect is because we’re tired.” We decided to seize the opportunity despite our fatigue, and packed for the Wave Effect.
As I’ve often found, exercise rejuvenated us, and by the time we made it to Niponino on the afternoon of February 4 we both felt less sluggish. We followed my common strategy, taking a half rest-day on February 5, spending the day to scramble up to the base of Desmochada at a leisurely pace. The approach from Niponino to the base of Desmochada gains at least 1,000 meters of elevation and follows a 4th-class buttress, so we didn’t want to make the approach the same day that we started our climb. Bivying at the base of Desmochada left us with two options: Either descend off of Chaltén to the east, as is standard, and retrieve our bivy gear later, or descend off of Chaltén back to the west side and to our bivy. We chose the second option, and schemed up a descent first down the standard French Route, and then down the big, west-facing, somewhat-dangerous couloir between Chaltén and Aguja Poincenot.
The Torre Traverse is about half rock climbing and half crampon climbing, and for that climb Alex and I formed a very equal partnership. The Wave Effect, on the other hand, is a pure rock climb, and there was no doubt that it would be Alex getting us up. Aguja Desmochada and Aguja de la Silla would involve the hardest climbing, so Alex would lead all of both of them. On Chaltén we would ascend the California Route, which is much more moderate and which I knew very well (I had soloed it just barely more than a month earlier), so that would be my lead block. And, of course, in every case we would simul-climb as much as possible.
On February 6 we woke from our bivy at the base of Desmochada, had some breakfast while listening to The Offspring, and started up “Golden Eagle” shortly before 5am (Our timing, done on Alex’s iPhone, is quite exact for elapsed time, but the times of day are a bit rough). The first several standard pitches on “Golden Eagle” follow mostly moderate terrain with a few sections of 5.10 up to a big ledge at the start of the steeper headwall. We simul-climbed this block in one pitch in the dark. I was a bit alarmed to find us simul-climbing 5.10 with usually only two pieces between us, and I think at a few moments only one piece – It definitely set the tone for the day.
The crux pitch of Golden Eagle is right off the big ledge, and is given 7a in the guidebook. I had of course been reminding Alex that he could always stop at the top of the crux pitch and give me a proper top-rope, and he of course ignored my suggestion and just kept blasting upwards. Starting up I wasn’t so sure that the microtraxion in play above would keep me off the ledge, but at least it would keep me from killing Alex. Fortunately we both found the pitch a bit easier than 7a, and we were soon cruising above. Alex’s stated goal was to take our second pitch to the next big ledge (the “Eagle’s Nest”), which is a block of at least four standard pitches, including a few additional sections of 5.11 above the “7a” pitch. With only two microtraxions we could only afford for Alex to place them above the hardest sections of climbing, so we were doing a bunch of simul-climbing on sustained 5.10 with only a couple pieces of protection between us and no microtraxions in play. Needless to say I was a bit freaked out, and very focused. Alex placed the second microtraxion just in time, before I started up a section of sustained vertical lay-backing. We were both carrying four liters of water, approach shoes, crampons, food and clothing. In addition, I had two ice tools, a couple ice screws and a few pitons, and Alex had the rappel rope (the heavier portion of group gear despite the fact that he was leading – He’s simply so much stronger than me on steep granite that it makes sense). Our packs were quite heavy, and I had definitely never before gotten so pumped while simul-climbing.
When I arrived at the Eagle’s Nest I was totally pumped and breathing hard. I had surprised myself by free-climbing the crux sections of Golden Eagle, and while free-climbing is generally a low priority for me in the mountains I said to myself, “Well, if I free-climbed the hardest block I might as well try to free-climb the rest of the way to the top of Desmochada.” We chatted for a few minutes with our friends Quinn Brett and Max Barlerin, who had bivied at the Eagle’s Nest, and then Alex blasted off again, determined to take our third pitch to the top of Aguja Desmochada. Our third pitch was long, and therefore done mostly without microtraxions between us. It was fortunately mostly moderate, and Alex calculated perfectly where to place the two microtraxions. We arrived on the summit of Desmochada 5:14 after starting, which I’m pretty sure is a speed record for the route, and immediately started our descent to Puerta Blanca (the col between Desmochada and Aguja de la Silla). On the descent we came across several humongous granite puddles, and I couldn’t help think about how much easier Golden Eagle would’ve felt without those 4 kilograms of water in each pack…
For Aguja de la Silla we had been debating between climbing “The Vertical Current” as the first ascensionists had, or “Il Bastardo,” the un-repeated Huber-Huber-Walder route which takes a proud line up the center of Aguja de la Silla’s south face, directly above the col. It was obvious that Il Bastardo would be much more difficult than the Vertical Current, so not surprisingly I was in favor of climbing the Vertical Current and Alex was in favor of climbing Il Bastardo. Alex was leading, so up Il Bastardo we went. Alex Huber’s topo showed several pitches of 6c A0, and Alex figured that it wouldn’t be too hard to free-climb the whole thing. I was of course more skeptical about free-climbing, but since I had free-climbed all of Aguja Desmochada I had gotten slightly inspired by the goal of free-climbing everything and figured I would give it a shot.
Il Bastardo got pretty intense pretty quickly. Our first pitch climbed the first three pitches marked in Alex Huber’s topo, and included two sections of very steep, wide climbing. In the first crux the terrain was slightly overhanging and I specifically recall a desperate sort of deadpoint to a small crimp. I was on the verge of falling, and was very thankful that the microtraxion was on a bomber piece just fifteen meters above. The climbing was hard enough that I probably would’ve thrown my free-climbing aspirations out the window if there was enough protection to easily French-free. Similarly, I probably would’ve yarded on the rope, except that with the slack in the system and a very stretchy 8.5mm rope, pulling myself up the rope on slightly overhanging terrain would not have really been any easier. While I was desperately climbing through the first crux, Alex was vision-questing up the sustained wide crack above, taking humongous runouts on sustained, hard climbing, all while battling upwards with the heavier pack. While following this section myself I was very happy to be on a real top-rope, rather than just having a microtraxion in the system. I was completely pumped, on the verge of falling several times, and hyperventilating from the effort of such steep climbing with such a heavy pack. Again, I might’ve been tempted to pull on gear, but since Alex had only placed protection about once every 15 meters it wouldn’t have really made the pitch any easier or faster. I arrived to Alex’s belay completely worked, surprised that I had yet again free-climbed everything, and amazed by the runouts Alex had just taken on that terrain.
Our second pitch on Il Bastardo was fortunately not as difficult of climbing as the first, but Alex was determined to go to the top of the mountain, and linked seven pitches on Alex Huber’s topo into one. Thus we had microtraxions in play for only a small portion of this block, and the terrain got progressively snowier and icier as we climbed. I remember following a couple sections of low 5.10 with snow and ice on half the holds and only one piece of protection between us, thinking that this was pretty crazy. No one forces you to rise to the occasion quite like Alex does!
I arrived to below the two summit gendarmes, and found Alex on top of the east gendarme, lamenting the fact that he had accidentally climbed the lower one. He rappelled back down to my stance, and led us up one last wide crack to the summit of Aguja de la Silla. Our time from the base of Il Bastardo to the summit was 4:11, and we made the first free ascent of the route. Alex’s lead block up this route, considering the runouts and the heavy pack, was the most badass block of rock climbing I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve never tried as hard in the mountains while on top-rope as I did on the third pitch. Even Alex, the last person in the world normally fazed by hard rock climbing, admitted that he had been “hate-fucking” the pitches on Il Bastardo.
We climbed up the east summit gendarme that Alex had already summited once, and then made a pretty straightforward descent down to the Col de los Americanos (the col between Aguja de la Silla and Chaltén). Here we took a pretty long, relaxed break, psyching up for one more big climb, up the California Route. Both of our feet hurt pretty bad by this point, and Alex changed into approach shoes, since 5.10 is that easy for him. This was a boon for me as well, because I was able to put on wool socks and swap into Alex’s pair of TC Pros, two sizes larger than mine and perfect for the easier terrain.
It was finally time for me to take some big runouts, and I started up the California Route, definitely greatly aided by my intimate knowledge of the line. I took us to the end of the 5th-class climbing in three moderate but long pitches of simul-climbing, where we unroped and started scrambling to the summit. We arrived on the summit of Chaltén just past 10pm (17:07 from the base of Desmochada, and 3:44 from the start of the California Route), and right at dusk, and promptly began our descent. Our descent down the French Route went quickly and smoothly, no doubt aided by the fact that it was my eleventh time rappelling the route. Once at La Brecha (the col betwen Chaltén and Aguja Poincenot) we downclimbed a couple hundred meters of 4th-class terrain to the west, and then made a rappel to the top of the serac. A second rappel took us over the side of the serac and into the most dangerous portion of our climb. We descended the couloir via some sections of down-climbing, and a bunch of rappels (often on terrain that one could easily downclimb in boots and steel crampons, but not with aluminum crampons on tennis shoes), always trying to stay as far as possible to the rive-gauche side, where we were often out of harm’s way from the serac above. Our rappel rope soon developed a bad core shot, and we also started leaving sections of it for anchors. It was a relief to make the last rappel and scramble back towards our bivy, away from the serac.
We reached our bivouac 25:17 after we had departed, ate, drank and passed out. It had grown increasingly windy during our descent of the Chaltén-Poincenot gully, and by the time we woke from our nap the gusts were quite strong. We had climbed seven major towers in seven days, and we were wasted. The skin on my hands also hurt more than I’ve ever experienced before. Down-climbing the long, 4th-class buttress felt like quite a chore, especially with the wind gusts, and Alex kindly took more than his share of the weight. Down in Niponino we ate a few snacks and barely had time to organize and cache our equipment before it started raining. The whole hike out was windy and rainy – the door was closing on what had been a truly incredible week of climbing.