During the past few years I have been lazy about writing on my blog. I think this is largely because I now share snippets of my climbing on social media, and after already writing about a climb on social media, even if only very succinctly, some of my motivation to write more deeply has dissipated. However, I think it is worthwhile sometimes to share climbing stories in more detail. Also, I have realized that my blog is a helpful resource for myself, regardless of who else may read it. I have never been one to keep a diary or expedition log, and I find it useful to look back in my blog and remember details from climbing trips that I made years ago. With that in mind, hopefully in the coming weeks I will find the time and motivation to write at least some basic details of climbing that I did last summer in Peru. At the moment, however, I am sitting in multiple puffy jackets in an unheated hostel in El Chaltén, and motivated to write about a climb that I just experienced.
I spent a few weeks earlier this summer in the Canadian Rockies. I had been quite psyched for the trip, but for a variety of reasons it wasn’t turning out as I had hoped, and I was starting to wonder if I was wasting my time there. Although I was already starting to feel somewhat pessimistic about the trip, it wasn’t until getting busted by a park warden for “illegal camping” (sleeping in a van at a trailhead) that I threw in the towel and bailed on the Canadian Rockies. While driving back west on the Trans Canada Highway I was constantly pondering what do to. I felt that this year I had made all the wrong decisions about what trips to take, and squandered my summer. I had, for instance, considered making a Denali trip, but decided against it, only to later watch unfold the best window of good climbing conditions and weather ever seen on Denali. Rolling further westward in my dad’s old van, I considered making a stop to visit friends in my old home town of Squamish, and then spending the remainder of the summer based in Seattle, with little trips into the Cascades. However, I still felt a lot of desire to pit myself against ambitious and inspiring alpine climbing goals… which I hadn’t done in far too long.
My mind returned again and again to the idea of flying down to wintertime Patagonia for a rematch with the Supercanaleta. In August 2019 I had travelled to El Chaltén to try to make a solo winter ascent of Fitz Roy, but never made an attempt due to poor conditions, sickness, and not enough psychological firepower at the time to attempt such a serious and difficult solo (https://colinhaley.com/a-brief-visit-to-patagonia-and-reflections-on-hard-solo-climbing/). The objective has stayed in the back of my mind, however, and while passing the hours along the Trans Canada Highway it certainly sounded a lot more inspiring than hanging around Seattle for the rest of the summer. There were compelling reasons not to go, however: most of my best winter climbing gear was back in France, including all my ski gear, and as I was driving through BC there remained only one month more of calendar winter in the southern hemisphere. In the very early morning of August 21 I descended from the Coquihalla Pass down to Hope, pulled over and texted my longtime climbing partner, friend, and mentor, Rolando Garibotti. I told him that I was thinking of making a last-minute decision to go to Chaltén, and asked his advice. Rolo gave me his take on the weather outlook, but more importantly offered me this advice:
“It seems hard to pass up the chance to have another go down there. You are fit, healthy, have money, travel is possible, have the free time. Things might not align again, and even an unsuccessful try might be a better plan than anything else you can come up with for the next few weeks. Undoubtably that place, with all the experience you have there, gets the best of you. The plan, although ambitious, is well up your alley, and it could be quite an empowering trip. Don’t know if I should be encouraging or not… but it does seem like you rise to your very best there.”
I am grateful to have Rolo as a friend, and grateful to have a friend who is so encouraging to pursue my dreams and ambitions, since I feel that so many signals from the people around me have the opposite influence. Rolo’s point also rang true that things might not align again. I recently turned 38, and in the past few years I have become increasingly conscious of the fact that there won’t always be “next year,” to try an ambitious and difficult climbing project. Losing a year and a half due to COVID restrictions was a strong reminder of how quickly things can change, and that the opportunity to pursue lofty climbing goals might disappear at any time. Alright then! After passing through the Fraser Valley I turned south, bummed to miss visiting friends in Squamish, but eager to get to Patagonia as quickly as possible! The next day, August 22, I bought a flight to Argentina for August 28, and spent the following five days in a whirlwind of getting packed, organized, and tying up loose ends.
I have a long history with the Supercanaleta. I first climbed it in December 2007 with Maxime Turgeon. It was my second time climbing Fitz Roy, and was a memorable day particularly for our miserable open bivy in the rain at Laguna de los Tres after the long descent of the Franco route. In January 2009 I made the second solo ascent of the Supercanaleta, on what still remains one of the most intense days of my life (https://colinhaley.com/supercanaleta-solo-a-slightly-long-winded-description/). Finally, in 2016 Andy Wyatt and I climbed the route together, making the first one-day, car-to-car ascent of Fitz Roy. I probably know the route better than anyone, but nonetheless my most recent ascent was 6.5 years ago, and the route is 1600 meters tall, so I hardly felt like I remembered it well. I certainly know better than anyone else what it means to solo the route, as I’m the only living person to have done so (Dean Potter made the first solo ascent in 2002). Two other climbers have fallen to their deaths climbing solo on the route, and I have had the unpleasant experience of coming across both of their bodies, so the deadly consequences of making a mistake while soloing the Supercanaleta are grimly seared in my memory.
Since I had previously soloed the Supercanaleta in 2009, the only added factor to my ambitions this year was the winter season. However, over two previous trips to Chaltén in the winter season I realized that it can make a big difference, and those experiences helped me this year to come up with a good strategy. One of the biggest difficulties of solo alpine climbing is that you have no one to help carry the weight that is normally shared between two people, and as a result you typically end up carrying some very heavy backpacks. This was definitely exacerbated in the wintertime, since I needed to also carry the clothing and bivouac equipment needed to comfortably survive in a winter environment with typical nighttime temperatures of -20C. So, after arriving in El Chaltén the night of Aug 29, I headed into the mountains already on the morning of Aug 31 to carry a load of gear up to Piedra Negra. On September 3 I took advantage of another small lull in the stormy weather, carrying some more gear up to Piedra Negra, and carrying most of my climbing gear all the way to the little cirque immediately below the Supercanaleta. Coming back from this load carry, I was descending from Paso del Cuadrado in a blizzard, by headlamp, wading through deep, powdery snow, and the desolate nature of the range in wintertime felt particularly palpable.
These past weeks there has been a lot of snowfall in the Chaltén Massif, which has been great for all the people going powder skiing up near Lago del Desierto, but not ideal for alpine climbing. On Sept. 7-8 it looked like I had a period of weather good enough to make an attempt, and I hiked into the mountains on Sept. 6. However, I had very deep trail breaking already to get up to Piedra Negra, and it only got deeper going up to Paso del Cuadrado and across the Glaciar Fitz Roy Norte. By the time I arrived in the cirque below the route it was 8pm, dark, and I knew I was way too late and way too tired to make an attempt the following day. I spent most of Sept. 7 lounging in my tent below the route, resting for a hoped-for attempt on the 8th. However, I got updated weather forecasts via Inreach from Rolo, and from Alisa, my girlfriend, that made it clear that the weather on the 8th would not be good enough. So, I left all my gear cached in the cirque below the route, and hiked out the evening of Sept. 7, arriving in town after midnight.
A handful of days later, it appeared that September 12 would have solid weather to make an attempt, and I hiked back in on September 11. My pack on the approach was relatively lightweight, and the deep snow on the glaciers had been largely blown away by strong winds, so this time I made it to the cirque below the route in the early afternoon, feeling fresh and feeling optimistic for the next day. On Sept. 12 I woke up at 4:30am, but it wasn’t until 7am that I crossed the bergschrund. In the very cold temperatures it took significant time in the morning to get suited up, heat up my 3 liters of water, and pack my water away in a manner to keep it well insulated. The first 300 meters of the couloir were easy snow climbing, and I was slowed down only by my heavy pack. I had 3 liters of water, a bunch of energy food, two 60m ropes, a single set of cams, a set of nuts, 10 pitons, 2 ice screws, a healthy selection of slings and carabiners, 4 pairs of gloves, 3 puffy jackets, and puff pants.
After the first 300 meters of snow climbing, the conditions changed to old, hard, grey ice for the remaining 700 meters of couloir up to the Bloque Empotrado. This was still climbing that I found technically easy, except for a couple sections where the ice was thin enough to require mixed climbing on the basalt dike. However, despite being technically easy, all the hard ice made the couloir drastically more tiring and time-consuming than in typical summer conditions, when it is filled with snow and névé. Although disappointing to have such difficult conditions in the couloir, it was not surprising. In any cold mountain range it is typical to have more snow on the mountain faces in spring, summer, and fall, and drier conditions on the faces in the winter, when the frigid air and strong winds scour the faces. Certainly in the Mont Blanc Massif it is normal to have “dry” conditions on north faces in the wintertime, with lots of hard, grey ice, but very little snow or névé. Regardless of the fact that I wasn’t surprised by the difficult conditions, it wasn’t until 4 hours after crossing the bergshrund, and a humongous amount of front-pointing and axe-swinging, that I arrived to the Bloque Empotrado, and the start of the more technical climbing.
The first pitch above the Bloque Empotrado is a tricky one. I switched into thinner gloves to improve my climbing performance, but alternated between numb fingers and the screaming barfies while clearing snow off the handholds and slowly making my way up. I hauled my pack up behind me, and then continued up a pitch of easy mixed climbing to the base of some ice pitches. The ice pitches were more difficult than in summer, simply because the ice was cold, hard, and brittle. While accidentally hitting rock beneath thin ice I bent one of my picks pretty badly and thought that my attempt might be over for that reason. I spent some minutes hitting the pick with the hammer of my other axe, and bent it back close enough to straight to be able to at least continue. A couple pitches higher is a short step that is very easy in typical summer conditions, but in the very dry conditions was a major crux, with slabby, insecure, mixed climbing. I not only hauled my pack up behind me, but also used some rudimentary self-belay techniques to make it through this section in a manner that seemed adequately safe. Above this crux there was about 90 meters of easy mixed climbing in the gut of the gully before I traversed out to the right. A couple more tricky mixed bits brought me up to the point where one makes a short, diagonal rappel to the right to gain a hanging mixed gully system.
I reached the rappel point at 14:30. It had definitely taken longer to reach that point than I had anticipated. In summer, in a solid weather window, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to continue from that point at that time of day. However, the good weather was forecast to end abruptly at 1am on Sept. 13, and with the winter temperatures I knew that I couldn’t risk being high on Fitz Roy in bad weather. It was pretty clear that the only reasonable choice was to bail. I wasn’t in a rush to rappel back into the gut of the gully, since it was receiving the strongest sun of the day, so I spent 30 minutes pondering life, climbing, the people I love, soloing, ambition, risk, and the desire to stay alive. I felt, as I have many times before, that what I was doing was ridiculous, and too stressful and scary to be enjoyable. Already before setting up the first rappel, I thought it was very unlikely that I would make another attempt. In fact, I concluded, once again, that it was time to put hard, solo alpinism behind me. A number of rappels later, when some rocks were falling by me, and a couple of them hitting me (but only mildly bruising me), I felt confident that I wouldn’t make another attempt. “I have already spent far too much of my life in this humongous terrain trap,” I said to myself. I finally made it back down to my tent around 21:30. I made myself some water, ate some food, and caught just a couple hours of sleep before the storm started. After 1am it was impossible to sleep because the tent was being hit by such violent gusts of wind. It was clear that if I had continued to the summit I would have majorly gambled with my life up there, and would be in an epic struggle to make it down alive. I slowly got suited up and began the task of packing up in a storm, which is never easy. Blowing snow filled any open pocket, and wind gusts partially broke my tent poles, but I eventually got completely packed up, and started the long hike out. The hike out was very epic, with numerous gusts that blew me to my knees on the glacier, and then, when I finally got down to Piedra Fraile, torrential rain for the remainder of the hike to the road. It was particularly heinous because I hiked out with all my equipment and therefore a very heavy pack, confident not only that I wouldn’t make another attempt on the Supercanaleta, but that I wouldn’t do more solo climbing on the trip at all. When I arrived back in town everything was soaked, and I was thinking only about going sport climbing with Alisa.
In 1982 the prolific German alpinist Reinhard Karl was in Patagonia, and made multiple attempts on the Supercanaleta with Luis Fraga. Apparently the last attempt was so harrowing that upon finishing the descent he buried all of his climbing gear in the glacier at the base and vowed not to climb again. A couple weeks later he was at the base of the Supercanaleta again, digging up his climbing gear so that he could then go climb the California Route with swiss climbers Peter Luthi and Toni Spirig. Fitz Roy was Karl’s last mountain, as he died a few months later on Cho Oyu. While my own psychological oscillations with the Supercanaleta were not as extreme as Karl’s, there is some resemblance. Just the day after returning to town, I started to think about the Supercanaleta again. I thought about how I could improve my strategy, and rationalized that it wasn’t so bad up there. It soon became clear that another spell of good weather, in fact a much better spell of good weather, was on its way. Within a couple days after returning to town I began to pack and plan for another attempt. I was certainly frustrated that I had carried out all my equipment, after investing so much effort at the start of my trip to put it in place.
On the morning of Sept. 17 I was hiking back into the mountains. Unfortunately, not only did I have a massively heavy backpack, but it had snowed quite a bit during the past days. Fortunately, the weather window was a big one, and I could afford to do the approach over two days, going on Sept. 17 only as far as Piedra Negra. On the 18th I crossed over Paso del Cuadrado yet again, and hiked up the Glaciar Fitz Roy Norte to the cirque at the base of the Supercanaleta. Due to my really heavy backpack, and the difficulty of breaking trail through the new snow, my legs were fairly tired by the time I arrived at the base of the route. For this reason I strongly considered taking a rest day on the 19th, and making my attempt on Sept. 20 instead. I texted with Rolo by Inreach, and he fortunately convinced me to try on the 19th despite my fatigue, saying that the forecast on the 20th was not as solid.
On Sept. 19 I again crossed the bergschrund at 7:00. The reason for not starting earlier is that the route is west-facing, and I knew that climbing in the sun would feel warmer, and allow me to wear thinner gloves, which always helps a lot on technical climbing. I had slightly refined my gear since my previous attempt, taking for instance one fewer pair of gloves, and one fewer cam. On the lower 1000m of couloir up to the Bloque Empotrado, conditions were about equivalent to before. In fact there was a bit more snow and névé sticking to the hard ice (which made for a bit less front-pointing and axe-swinging), but there was also more trail breaking on the first 300m, so roughly equivalent overall. It still took me 3:45 to reach the Bloque Empotrado, only 15 minutes faster than during my previous attempt.
On the pitches above the Bloque Empotrado I made slightly better time than my previous attempt, largely because I knew better which way to go. It is at roughly this place where the route of ascent and the route of descent diverge. The route of ascent traverses out onto the right wall of the couloir, and climbs up the right wall to reach the southwest ridge above. The descent route follows the direct gut of the gully all the way down. At this point of divergence I had a new strategy compared to my previous attempt: I left one of my two 60m ropes here in the gully, and continued above with just one 60m rope. Descending the entirety of the Supercanaleta with a single 60m rope would be a nightmare. However, descending the upper rappels (perhaps 200m of descent) with a single 60m rope sounded reasonable, and it allowed me to climb with a lightweight backpack for the remainder of the climb. In hindsight I think this was an excellent strategy choice.
At 14:15 I reached my previous highpoint, only 15 minutes faster than during the earlier attempt. However, while I still felt quite intimidated, I felt significantly more confident than I had on my previous attempt. More importantly, the forecast indicated that the whole night would be calm, and I could afford the slow pace. Conditions on this section were also drier than before, with quite a bit of bare rock, and that was certainly helpful. I made the diagonal rappel, and from there made good time up to the upper southwest ridge (arriving at 15:45), encountering just a couple trickier sections in between.
There are several tricky sections on the upper southwest ridge, and they all required great care. I was in a sort of focused frenzy for this whole section of the climb, moving as fast as I felt I safely could, but having to take a lot of care in many places, and a lot of time in several places. On some sections there was a bunch of rime plastered to the rock, which made progress slow, but in other places the rock was nearly bare, which was very advantageous. As the sun was dipping to the west it was filtered through low clouds above the South Patagonia Icecap, and made for utterly gorgeous scenery. I finished the last difficult pitch at 20:05, just as it was getting dark. I felt very relieved to be finished with the 5th-class climbing, but still very stressed and anxious. Being all alone on the summit slopes of Fitz Roy, in winter, in the dark, felt pretty absurd. From the top of the Supercanaleta, the upper slopes are largely south-facing (so they get no sun in winter time), and some bits were quite wind-sheltered, so there were sections of thigh-deep powder snow. This felt bizarre, because it is so atypical for the summit slopes of Fitz Roy, and I was also genuinely concerned about the potential for slab avalanches in a couple of spots. Aside from the sections of deep snow, there were several sections of hard, grey ice, with a thin layer of powder snow on top of it. This was easy enough to climb up, but it added stress knowing that I would need to downclimb hard ice on the descent. I reached the summit of Fitz Roy at 21:23, and could see the lights of El Chaltén 3000 meters below. I wondered if anyone down in town was outside taking in some fresh air, and might see my headlamp 3000 meters above. I had been extremely lucky all day to have nearly zero wind, but finally on the summit it was fairly breezy from the north. I felt extremely anxious about the descent, and started down just a couple minutes after arriving on the summit.
Fortunately, the sections of downclimbing on hard ice weren’t as bad as I had feared, and in a couple spots I was able to make quick 30m rappels off of rock horns. When I reached the notch at the top of the Supercanaleta, I took off my harness for a minute to put on my puff pants, eat my last bits of food, and get organized for 1000 meters of rappelling. On the upper rappels I was quite conservative, making short rappels where I could have made longer ones (and leaving behind some gear in the process), but I got down to my second rope without incident. The rest of the descent went smoothly as well, but felt interminable. I finally got back to my tent at roughly 5:00 on Sept. 20, extremely wasted physically, mentally, and psychologically. I spent the next 12 hours taking short naps, melting snow, and eating food. Not until 17:30 on the 20th did I finally start hiking out. The weather on the 20th had been mostly perfect, but around 18:00 some wind clearly picked up at high elevations, giving Fitz Roy its stereotypical “smoking mountain” lenticular cloud, and I was very glad that Rolo had convinced me to make my attempt the day before. I hiked as far as a small section of forest below Piedra Negra but above Piedra del Fraile. I spent a luxurious night sleeping soundly on dry ground, and then finished the hike out to the road on the morning of the 21st.
I never did any proper self-belaying on the climb, but I used “back-loops” in seven places (a very rudimentary self-belaying technique that does not offer much safety, but at least means that falling doesn’t result in certain death), and “daisy-soloing” in several other spots. The back-looping was done with a 60m dynamic “twin rope,” and my second rope was a 65m pure dyneema static rope. Over the course of my five journeys into the mountains on this trip, I only ever encountered other people on three occasions, and those were all on the first kilometers of flat trail between the road and Piedra del Fraile. Above Piedra del Fraile I never encountered any other people, nor saw any other tracks, which was a lovely contrast to how busy Patagonia has become in the summertime.
At the moment, on the evening of Sept. 22, I still feel pretty physically tired from the climb, still somewhat sleep deprived, and certainly still in a daze from the experience. There is no one pitch on the Supercanaleta that is extremely difficult or dangerous, but the length of the route, having to be in a hyper-focused state non-stop for 21.5 hours, and doing it all in the cold and solitude of winter made it a very intense experience. It is difficult for me to gauge or quantify how much more difficult it was than soloing the route in summer back in 2009. For sure it was a significant step up, even though in 2009 I had particularly bad conditions for summer, and even though this time I had, I think, pretty good conditions for winter, and certainly good weather. It is also difficult for me to gauge, at least in my still-tired state, where this ascent stands among my other climbing accomplishments, or how this ascent will be viewed by others. I often find the public reaction to various climbing accomplishments to not correlate very strongly with the actual difficulty of the climbing accomplishment. These days what seems to count is making movies rather than making difficult ascents. It doesn’t matter really. I know from the intensity of my experience that it was pretty darn badass, and I don’t need external affirmation to confirm that to me.
At the moment the past weeks feel like a blur. It has been a rollercoaster, dealing with frustrating mechanical issues with my dad’s old van in the Canadian Rockies, learning of the death of my awesome aunt Toni, buying a last-minute ticket to Patagonia, hiking loads in stormy weather, making an attempt and deciding that I was done with soloing, exiting the mountains in a major storm, finally going back in to finish the job, and ending extremely tired but totally satiated. After my first attempt, it was definitely lucky for another weather window to materialize, especially one that was so long and solid. I owe thanks to several other people for helping me succeed in this objective: Max Odell lent me a pair of snowshoes here in Chalten, which were critical for traveling on the glaciers with all the fresh snow. Seba Perrone found me an excellent and affordable place to stay in town. Alisa, my girlfriend, sent me many weather forecast updates to the Inreach, in addition to being supportive of my goals and having the patience to make a life together with someone who has a lot of ambitions in the mountains. Rolo Garibotti helped me in many ways, from sending weather updates, to loaning me a bicycle, to offering advice in countless ways, and most importantly for encouraging me to buy the ticket and take the chance.