The day after Rory was flown out, I hiked to Confluencia. I packed the second set of our gear for delivery to Mendoza where Rory was recovering and also packed technical gear for the South Face, arranging for a mule transport to Plaza Francia the following day. One snafu escaped my attention; the fine print on the permit required I bring a radio but I had inadvertently sent them back with Rory to Mendoza. So I had to pay for a mule to bring up a radio from Fernando Grajales to Confluencia and arranged to call in twice daily.
I intended to attempt a new route on the left side of the face between the original French Route and the Romanian variation to the Slovenian route. On the summer solstice, I hiked to the base of the route to get a closer look and check conditions in the light.
The route looked foreshortened from the base of the avalanche cone. The initial bergshrund was crossable and the initial WI V+ pitch was flowing heavily with water and was best avoided. It seemed the majority of the climb was 65-70 degree snow and ice punctuated with vertical ice steps. The real difficulty lay in surviving ice avalanches from frequent serac falls. Only minutes after I walked away, a huge avalanche swept the route and where I had just been standing. Steeling my nerves against the possibility of being swept from any point on 6,500 vertical feet of the route, I told myself that this was the route. In eight hours I would be on it.
Two other climbers have soloed the South Face. One had other climbers preplace gear on the French Direct route and the second had soloed the French Direct in a day. I believed if conditions were solid I could climb the South Face via a new route in a day. Confident enough to not take a sleeping bag or tent, I laid out my gear mindfully, fitting it all neatly into a 40 liter pack.
With luggage packed for the mules, I left camp at 4 am following the trail to the base and crossed two large cravasses before reaching the bergshrund. Over the shrund and up the penitente covered snow slopes to the right of the route, the snow began to thin the higher I went. Delicately traversing, I wanted to reach a thin cleft in the face I hoped to ascend or down climb. When I finally reached it I was stumped about whether to go up and left or down the narrow gulley.
I stuck a picket in a blob of snow 18” thick and down climbed gingerly on “rappel”. After 50 feet, I found a four inch thick section of ice to place a screw for the second rappel. Fifty feet later there was no ice. I nervously down climbed snow dusted rock to a thin ice patch, then placed an ice screw and down climbed another 50 feet close to the bottom of the gulley. I was in the Couloir proper now after nearly three and a half hours. Suddenly a massive avalanche came rushing past me. I clung precariously to the thin ice covering the rock and carefully gained purchase to reach the snow and better footing closer to the center of the Couloir. With sun moving across the top of the route ringed with seracs for over 200 degrees, I had to be aware if they would fall on the left side of the route or the right side.
Mid route, it was not clear which way to go so I climbed up a large ice step near an island of rock to have a closer look. Suddenly a huge serac released a massive payload! I looked up to see ice shooting off the top of the rock island followed by a billowing avalanche cloud overhead. I ran as fast as possible looking for somewhere to hide and with nothing, flopped on my face with my arm cocked for an air pocket preparing to be buried. I was blasted by 40-60 mph winds and frosted by a fine snow. It took me about five minutes to stop hyperventilating but I figured that it would be an hour before the next avalanche.
With my ice tools I tapped my way up rock covered by a half inch of ice. Falling was not allowed so each move had to be methodical. This was rewarded by a solid pitch of WI IV which led past into a large basin.
The basin was scoured clean of snow as it sat directly below all of the seracs on the upper part of the route. I crossed the basin to the other side and looked back just as another serac released down the water ice pitch. I have little doubt that the thin veneer of ice I climbed was carried away with it. Timing is everything!
An hour later at nearly 20,000 ft, I encountered a 25 ft section of gently overhanging ice to surmount a bulge. I backed off when I encountered poor feet and pulled my android leashes off my harness to try again. This was the first time since I shattered my right arm last winter that I was able to lock off on my right arm. On pace to complete the route in a day, I moved away from the seracs and onto the upper glacier, completing the first 6,600 ft of climbing in about 12.5 hours.
After a rest stop to brew water, I continued toward the Mesner Route. Climbing over the upper bergshrund I encountered horrible, unconsolidated sugar snow. It took weighting all four limbs at the same time to be able to get any upward movement. Progress slowed to less than 200 ft per hour with nearly 3,000 ft to go to reach the summit. At 11 pm I encountered mixed conditions and decided to take a break after 19 hours of climbing solo.
Realizing I wouldn’t summit in a day and with no tent or sleeping bag, I thought of ways I knew to counter hypothermia and frostbite as the temperature dipped below 10 F. I found a large block of ice to offer protection from the wind, then took the insulation out of my pack and placed it on top of my rope for an insulated seat. Donning extra layers and putting my booted feet inside my pack, I fired up the stove filling both poly bottles with hot water to put between my thighs and on my stomach to keep my core warm. A large electrical storm kept me entertained while I shivered the night away.
The sun’s greeting took awhile to lick away the cold of the night. After a meager breakfast I climbed back to my high point from the night before, discovering a thin section of snow that afforded better upward progress. I repeatedly had to climb over tenuous vertical sections of ice that left me vividly aware of the exposure nearly 7,500 ft up the wall. At one step I found an old fixed piton and tied in. The mixed step was deceivingly difficult and I carefully topped out onto the open face of the upper Argentinean route, within 1,200 vertical feet of the summit ridge but half a day away in the deep sugar snow conditions.
By now, I was hours late radioing the Guarda Parque, so let them know I was above 21,500 ft and getting closer to the summit, but stuck in poor snow conditions. My arms were continually deep in the snow, daggering with both axes for upward purchase and I did not notice the leather on my mittens getting wet. I desperately needed to reach the summit ridge by nightfall. All of the life force in my being was clawing slowly upwards as the sun went behind the ridge and the temperature dropped. I strained to keep up with the sun knowing when it disappeared from the top of the flutings that darkness would be close behind.
The option of spending another night on the face did not exist for the living! There were six other corpses on the South Face and I didn’t want to join them. I worked steadily when suddenly it dawned on me that I didn’t have any feeling in my thumbs. I pulled a mitt off and my thumb showed signs of frostbite half way to the first knuckle. Frostbite is easier to incur when the body is dehydrated and I had been without water for 12 hours. I moved closer to the ridge radioing my position to Gonzalo with the Guarde Parque. He encouraged me to push on and told me that rangers would be waiting at Camp Nido de Condores.
On the ridge crest, I walked like a drunken sailor negotiating the rock with crampons and with high winds buffeting me. Around midnight I descended into the Canaleta and familiar terrain having spent 42 hours on the South Face and thirty five of those hours climbing. Around 1:30 AM, Oscar, Gonzalo, and Juan greeted me at the Nido ranger station with hot drinks and a place to sleep for the night.
The next day was Christmas Eve! Working my way down to base camp, I was warmly welcomed by Pablo, the Grajales base camp manager. I had a three steak dinner complete with rice and vegetables. Although I was invited for other festivities I crawled into my sleeping bag and passed out hard!
Christmas day I paid a visit to the doctor who gave me vaso-dilators for my frostbite and instructed me to not refreeze my injury before it was completely healed. I notified her of my intention to speed climb the mountain in a few days weather permitting. She cautioned me that I got off easy and had seen men who lost all fingers and toes after encountering severe weather on the South Face.
A thirteen mile hike later, I was welcomed by Jeselda, the Grajales camp manager, at Confluencia. We walked over to the Guarda Parque station and had a wonderful dinner with the rangers I had been in radio contact with twice a day. We had a fun night recounting our various sides of the story.
The next day was a rest day. Gonzalo knew that I enjoy meditation so he took me to a “vega”; a green spring wildlife sanctuary. The vega was such a contrast from the experiences only a few days prior. These places are literal oases in the desert. I spent a fantastic afternoon surrounded by birds and creatures. After, I went bouldering with Gonzalo who needed a spotter for a few bouldering projects he was working on outside of camp.
The next afternoon, I hiked down to the park entrance and spoke with Senior Fernando Ledges about my intention to do a one day ascent. He mentioned that a Peruvian climber had the speed ascent and had started over a mile down the road. They offered me a place to sleep in the welcome center; a generous offer I was thankful to accept.
At 2 am my alarm went off. My plan included meeting Gonzalo at Confluencia with my second camelbak bladder and three liters, gloves and a down jacket stashed at Plaza de Mulas, and at Camp Berlin I had my cache of lightweight boots, crampons, dry socks, and food in a drybag. The route was 50 miles round trip with 14,000 ft of elevation gain.
Starting at 4am and at 8,700ft at the highway, I began to run up the paved road to the containers where I picked up my 10 lb pack. Jogging up the dirt trails, I made it to Confluencia to swap water bladders in 1 hour and 26 minutes. I ran down to the river, crossed the bridge, and then up above 12,000 ft into the wind and deep sandy gravel of the Horcones valley. Climbing steeply to Plaza de Mulas, I made it to the Guarda Parque hut in 4 hours 15 minutes where I broke down Rory’s base camp tent in 45 minutes.
Above base camp, I climbed rapidly to Nido where I got another liter from the rangers and made it to Berlin Camp in 9 hours 15 minutes. In camp I began to search for my dry bag. I had buried it under 200 pounds of rocks but someone had uncovered my cache and stolen my equipment. After 22 miles and 11,000 ft my speed ascent came to an end.
It had been a 45 mile effort stopping 2.5 miles short of the summit. I was more than a bit disappointed but was happy with my performance. I believe that I was on track for the second fastest ascent of the normal route.
I am satisfied at having put up the first American route on the South Face and hope my training for Mount Everest continues safely this winter. With good attention, the frostbite sustained in my right thumb should heal completely. Rory healed up well after his bout with pneumonia.
I would like to name the route on the South Face “Medicine Buddha” after my favorite meditation sadhana about the healing qualities of the “Ocean King”. Speaking the mantra is supposed to prevent someone from an untimely death. I give the route the rating: Medicine Buddha (Grade VI, WI IV, M 4, 6,500 ft.)
To my family, friends, teachers and sponsors, thank you for helping make this trip possible. No one is really solo in this world.