The Roaring 40

Josh Gross and I had big plans this past season in Patagonia.  Fitzroy, Poincenot, and maybe Cerro Standhardt… whatever we could put together in a month. We weren’t alone with our ambitious agenda. Dozens of other climbers, many with bigger forearms than ours, made the trek to the Roaring 40’s in hope of finding granite-glory.  Unfortunately, the Gods had other ideas. As Josh Wharton said over a bottle of Alamos Malbec on his 34th day in El Chalten, “The climbers who come here don’t get shut down by apathy or an inability to climb… they get shut down by the weather.” 

And so went the season, with ambitious climbers constantly modifying, then re-modifying, well laid plans. A small weather window in early December yielded some ascents, but those few triumphs were pulled together on rock routes that were still coated in ice and snow from the previous winter. The brief clearing led into “re-winter”, with icy, heavy rain pouring sideways in town, and snow piling foot upon foot on the peaks. Gear caches, stashed at those optimum places of safety where a climber could easily reach them, were covered under meter after meter of the nasty white stuff.

  It is Patagonia, so the snow came with wind that loaded the slopes as uneven slabs. Sadly, the intense storms created avalanches where most climbers felt they were safe, and one very experienced Patagonia veteran was killed when his camp was ripped out in a slide. A December of this weather rolled into January, and on to February. Just before we left Josh received a postcard from his friend Zach Smith who was already in Patagonia. It read “Save yourselves and go to Spain. It’s too late for me.” Ominous, yes, but we paid it no heed. 

Josh and I arrived in El Chalten on the 5th of February. From our cabin at Aires del Fitz, we had a beautiful view of Fitzroy and Poincenot. Like a threatening volcano, a snow plume half a mile long extended east from Fitzroy’s summit. Zach came over to welcome us and announce this was the first day he had seen the mountains since he’d arrived 20 days prior. “Welcome to Patagonia.” 

Dismayed by Zach’s report on conditions, we made a quick visit to Rolando “Rolo” Garibotti’s home. Rolo is not only the Michael Jordan of Patagonia, but also the Access Fund and Weather Channel all rolled into one tall, dark, and handsome package.  We hoped to climb the Franco-Argentine on Fitzroy, and let Rolo know our plans in the pursuit of beta and encouragement.  Rolo sipped his maté and stared out his front window at Fitzroy, its perfect, vertical walls, slathered in horrible rime. He then cleared his throat and said “I’d say your chances of getting up the Franco this season are…,” he paused for another sip, “nil.” 

 Zach might have accidentally slept through a spell of great weather (Zach is a very talented climber but a 5.15 level sleeper), and our eyes might be lying to us about the amount of snow on the mountains, but there was no arguing the word of Rolo. Our hearts sank. We decided to do the most common Patagonia climbing activity, that being “to wait” and drown sorrows in Malbec. Over a couple bottles of wine, Josh decided that on the drier days, when the wind dipped below 20mph in town, he would try to redpoint one of the new 5.13’s that had been established at a nearby sport crag. Meanwhile, I would focus my energy on eating pizza and watching the non-stop Argentine coverage of Women’s Luge in Vancouver. 

In the following days, we each put our plans into play. Then, 10 days into our allotted 25, the hell-train of storms derailed. Over the course of one night, it went from raining sideways and 33 degrees, to dead-calm under a cloudless blue sky.  Just as suddenly, every climber in town was in action. 

We briefly considered the Supercanalata, the only route on Fitzroy thought to be in condition to be climbed, but then lowered our gaze to Aguja Guillaumet. Guillaumet is considered one of the smaller peaks. It is literally and figuratively in Fitzroy’s shadow. But, it appeared to be dry enough for actual rock climbing rather than a slow, mixed-climbing affair over mushrooms of rime and ice. By linking the Giordani Ridge to the Fonrouge Ridge, both 600 meters in length and rated 5.10, we would create for ourselves a 3900 foot climb on Guillaumet’s perfect, brown granite. That would be good training for the bigger Fitzroy… if the weather held.  We toasted the plan with more Malbec and set off the next morning. 

The weather and granite of Patagonia are rightfully the stuff of legends. What is not so well known are the size of the approaches and the size of the loads one must carry on said “approaches.”  To get to Guillaumet, we overloaded our packs with rock gear, ice gear, and camping and bivy supplies to the tune of 50 pounds. We then took a car north to the trailhead on the Rio Electrico. From there, we walked a pleasant four miles along the river on rolling terrain. Just over an hour into the approach our route abruptly turned uphill onto the Fitzroy Massif’s north slope. Those last two miles gained approximately 3600 feet of elevation on a trail of wet pebbles and scree. That bit of the approach took yours truly, five hours. 

The bivy site was alive with climbers hoping to get on one of the lower routes or perhaps move on to the Supercanalata on Fitzroy. The storms had moved on, but they had been replaced with a cold high-pressure area from the southern ocean. Everyone was layered in down and huddling around their stoves.  Zach, who had trekked in earlier and had been sleeping in preparation for a night push on the Supercanalata, welcomed us. “It was soooo cold last night,” he said over a cup of tea. “My water bottle was iced up in my tent… an early rock climb is gonna be desperate.” 

We woke early the next morning, stuck our heads out of the bivy tent, and crawled right back in. Zach had been right about the temp. We waited a couple more hours and then started towards the lower Giordani Ridge around 8:30am. A thousand feet of steep glacier travel deposited us on a low angle crescent of granite. We roped up and began simulclimbing skyward. Josh led with the rack and I climbed with the larger pack of ice gear. 

 The rock was cold on the hands, so I wore my Alibi gloves on almost all the pitches. The cracks were often clogged with ice and frozen snow, and the gloves did a good job of protecting my hands when I had to jam between the ice and rock. Even wet, the sticky rubber palms allowed for comfortable climbing in the cold air. 

Most of the rock was between 5.6 and 5.8, so we were able to move fast. But as we gained elevation the ridge kicked back with a series of vertical gendarmes that had to be negotiated without simulclimbing. Under normal summer conditions, we knew these towers were easily traversed, but this year the traverses were choked with ice and frozen snow. Transitioning from rock shoes to boots and crampons was an option, but each switch ate up valuable time. 

Josh led the crux pitch, something we were later told was usually 4th class, with a mixed bag of techniques that were anything but comfortable. He scaled a blank slab of rock to a ledge of snow, then up an ice-filled crack to near vertical snow and rime. The back of the crack was clogged, but the melt-out along its edges left a jammable hand crack of ice. Josh pulled his way up this, with no gear below him, and then gained another slab. There he managed to hang from a jam on one hand and pull his axe off his pack with the other. All the while his Five Ten Newtons were torqued between the ice and rock. He placed the tool deeply in the frozen snow, then mantled the adze to reach a traversing slab. I followed in a similar manner, contemplating how the hell to rate such a thing.  There was 5.10+ for the hands with the flared ice crack, but the rock-shoes were working on WI4.  The mantel move was V2ish, or was it A3? The M-scale wouldn’t even fit, so in the end I just rated it “hard.” 

After another bit of simulclimbing, we were at the col separating the lower Giordani Ridge from the upper Fonrouge.  Another team of climbers who had hiked around the Giordani and up to the col via a couloir, left packs hanging in the col above the ice. We paused to hydrate and take in a few calories, discussing the options for the much steeper face above.  We decided that the best option would be to leave the heavier boots and crampons in the col and move lighter and faster with just rock gear.  This was my idea and, it would later turn out, it was not a good one. 

Josh was in a groove leading the simulclimbing so I left him on the sharp end. He took off up the steep rock face, leading a few 5.10 pitches so quickly it was hard for me to follow in as little time. After perhaps five more pitches of excellent granite we found ourselves on a small ledge four thousand feet above camp. The Rio Electrico was far below and the icy Gorra Blanca Massif loomed north of us. To the west were Cerro Torre, Torre Egger, and Cerro Standhardt. Every few minutes the still mountain air was cut by the crashing of ice as the North Fitzroy and Pollone Glaciers a few thousand feet below us, calved off chunks of ice the size of four story buildings. 

Josh led out a wildly exposed traverse as I estimated the pitches left above us. Interestingly, as you get higher in Patagonia, the rock gets cleaner. Over the eons the wind, which regularly hits 200 mph on the mountain ridges, has scoured all the small flakes from the walls. I was guessing we had another 600 feet of flawless granite to go when suddenly, to my left and seemingly just behind my ear, was the terrifying sound of a large object rushing through the air. I instinctively ducked, only to hear the sound pass to my right and not below me.  I looked towards Cerro Torre to see an Andean Condor, the world’s largest flying bird, cruising at my level about 15 feet from the wall. With a wingspan of ~10 feet and a body the size of a Basset Hound, the condor was an impressive sight.  The bird made another pass, this time about 25 feet out, before I thought to grab the camera. I was soon shooting video and ignoring Josh’s calm requests for more rope… we’d climbed together a lot and I knew just how scared his voice would sound if it was a dicey clip. 

The condor flew off to the north, and I followed him up the pitch. We reached the very crest of the ridge and began simulclimbing again. After ~300 more vertical feet, the ascending ended at a huge gendarme. The higher party (who had skipped the Giordani Ridge) had stopped and was planning to descend. Josh and I talked it over.  We could see that the snowfield on the ridge beyond the gendarme had completely covered the rock arête. Without our ice gear, we would be taking a big risk on that snowfield. It was also just past 7pm and the temperature was in a nose dive. 

The date was February 15, 2010. My forty-third birthday. Fitness doesn’t come easily with that kind of age, but perhaps some wisdom does. We decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and were soon descending the route via a host of rappels. 

Flexing pins and hammered stoppers, linked with aged and wind-beaten 5 mil cord, made up the majority of the anchors. They were generally not something from Freedom of the Hills, but they held. We eventually caught and teamed up with the other group and by 11pm were at the col and hanging in our harnesses to slip on our ice boots. 

Another couple of rappels and an hour of descent on the glacier, and we were heating water for ramen noodles. It had been an incredible day, whether we reached the actual summit or not, and both of us were giddy with the climbing. Josh, knowing I’m a fan of bourbon, presented me with a mini-bar bottle of Jack Daniels (technically not bourbon, but beggars can’t be choosers at the Guillaumet bivy site near the far end of South America). We toasted the day and fell asleep. 

The next morning we were exhausted and Josh was feeling a bit of a sore throat.  A rumor was spreading through camp that there was only one more day before the weather window slammed shut again. However, neither of us felt up to climbing without rest. With a throat full of angst over wasting a perfect day, we descended from the camp. The following day I woke with a swollen ankle, while Josh fell into a horrible bout of the flu.  As it turns out, the weather collapsed, but later improved into an even bigger window.  However, by that time we were on planes home and making plans for next year... with hopes of good weather.