Climbing Cerro Torre: It's Never As Simple As It Could Be
The night before my flight to Patagonia, I found myself standing uncomfortably in front of a French Osteopath. Despite the feng shui appearance of his studio and the Buddha statue, I was being cursed at in French. As if standing in my briefs wasn’t making me uncomfortable enough, he folded me in positions that would make me blush in front of my wife all the while berating me at how inflexible I was, how it was just “pas possible.” Somehow during the previous month, a diet of sport climbing and the occasional long distance run, I’d done a better job at crippling myself instead of getting into any kind of shape. An inflamed hip flexor left me barely able to walk and a tight upper back left my neck about as limber as an oak tree.
My last minute attempt with osteopathy did little to loosen me up, but surely 36 hours of travel would do the trick? For this I went with the old standby, a combination of Ibuprofen, sleeping pills and free airline drinks. Soon enough I made it to Buenos Aires, where I met up with Peter, my climbing partner. As I limped through the airport I could sense a little concern from Peter, but I did my best to assure him I’d be ready to go. Honestly, I was secretly hoping for a few days of bad weather so I could get a little rest.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I got my wish and the Patagonian weather lived up to its reputation. In fact, even getting out for some cragging in town took a certain amount of determination. Most days we had the small crags to ourselves, bundled in parkas literally getting blown around by the strong winds. With only two weeks in El Chalten, the first week flew by and we only managed to leave a gear cache up in the Torre valley. Physically I was feeling much better, but now the mental anguish of climbing in Patagonia was starting to take its toll. Poor weather, way too much time spent looking at weather models and constant discussion about objectives was starting to wear us down. My time was running out, and getting skunked on this trip was becoming a real possibility. However, the second week looked better and like a carrot dangling in front of a mule, the promise of high pressure kept up our spirts and motivation.
With only a few days remaining on my trip, the good news was the weather was cooperating, but the bad news was my travel schedule was not. Our goal was to climb Cerro Torre and it looked like the stars were aligning for an attempt. The weather looked good, I had a great partner and physically I was feeling good. The only thing not cooperating was my departure date and a non-changeable plane ticket. Of course we could change objectives, but if there is one mountain that has always captivated me, Cerro Torre would be it. To complicate matters, I wasn’t just concerned about missing my flight home. I was scheduled to fly back to Chamonix for a mere 36 hours and then leave with my family to spend Christmas in New Hampshire. Missing one flight was going to be expensive, but things could really get out of hand quickly if I missed the second one. Tight scheduling is just a part of life when you’re trying to balance personal time and family time. My wife Caroline had been very supportive me of me going to Patagonia on this trip, but I didn’t want to cut into our family time and stick Caroline with solo trans-Atlantic flight, not to mention tap into Olivia’s college fund to rearrange plane tickets.
How much would you pay for a chance at doing your dream climb? For me, this answer was $1,700, the cost of a new plane ticket home. Of course, there was no guarantee of success on the climb, but there never is. Sometimes the biggest obstacle is making the commitment to try. In the end, like a desperate man sitting at a blackjack table in Vegas wagering his paycheck yelling “hit me,” I typed my credit card information into a travel website and bought a new plane ticket. Who knew how this story would end, but I felt like it was worth trying to find out.
Peter and I hiked in early the following day, geared up for a four day adventure: two days for the “approach,” a day for the climb and a day for the hike out. On the hike in, for the first time of the trip, we finally got a view of our objective and spirits were high. That is, until we reached camp. The first thing we saw as we entered the moraine where our gear was cached, was a bunch of food wrappers and a fox. Yeah, no joke, a fox. Why a fox would want to take up residency in this inhospitable environment was beyond me, but it had gotten into some other climbers’ caches and was snacking on freeze dried meals and energy bars. I wasn’t overly concerned, though, because we’d heard rumors about this critter and we’d barricaded our stuff under a boulder and only left gear, no food. However, as we began uncovering our gear it became apparent this fox had an appetite for more than just food. What I saw next made me sick: a core-shot rope. Peter’s rope had been chewed in half, not once, but twice. Here we were, 12 miles from town, about to embark on the climb of a lifetime and one of our ropes was destroyed.
After we stopped cursing the fox, throwing rocks and calmed down a bit, we considered our options. Our situation was far from ideal, but we were using a set of ½ ropes and we still had one strand that escaped the fox unharmed—the other strand was now 40 meters instead of 60. While not textbook, we could do the climb clipping one rope and drag up the damaged rope joined with a knot to be used for the descent. Dealing with the knot would take some trickery, but that was a long ways off and we felt confident we could manage that when the time came. Now it was time to get some rest, put this incident behind us and get ready for an early start on day two.
We were approaching the summer solstice, so the days are really long. It’s not easy to go to sleep early with the daylight, but we were at least getting some rest in our tent while dreaming about making fox mittens and scarfs when we had a visitor. At around 10 p.m., our friend Colin stopped by our tent and asked if we had being hearing yelling? We hadn’t heard anything, but he was concerned there could be some climbers in trouble. So much for sleeping. We hung tight and Colin went to investigate. Sure enough, his intuition had been right and he soon located two climbers close to camp who’d been hobbling their way back for almost 30 hours. Soon all of the climbers at the bivouac were awake and trying to help the injured climbers. The good news was their injuries weren’t life threatening, but they would not be able to hike out on their own. Peter, Colin and I set off to make a satellite phone call—even with a sat phone, coverage was not available where we were camped. While we made contact with the local police, I couldn’t help but feel like our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was evaporating before we set foot on the mountain. Seventeen hundred dollars in debt, a shot rope, a midnight rescue … was it time to wave the white flag on this one and give up before we even started?
As we made contact with the authorities, the other climbers in camp tended to the injured party. At this hour in the night there wasn’t much that could be done for the climbers. A rescue team would be sent the following morning, but for us, time was ticking. If we were going to continue with our plans, we needed to get going sooner than later. There were a number of other climbers at camp in the same situation as us, and there was definitely some stress in the air as people tried to decide how this situation was best managed. In the end, Peter and I set off for our climb and shortly after, other climbers followed. The teams in camp with shorter objectives planned would help the climbers hike out in the morning and meet the rescue team on their way in.
Growing up, ice hockey ruled my life. I was a goalie and pursued this passion quite competitively through high school before I gave it up to have more time to climb. Anyone who has ever played the sport knows that goalies, aside from many other quirky traits, tend to be superstitious. I had a whole routine that I would abide by before a game and it has taken me years to get over some of those habits. With all of the commotion surrounding our approach to Cerro Torre—my flight schedule, the rope-eating fox and the injured climbers—I couldn’t help being reminded of those old superstitions. Were these signs for worse things to come?
As Peter and I made our way up to the Col Standhart, it was hard to ignore all of the commotion surrounding our approach. Watching the sunrise light up the Fitz Roy massif helped me forget some of the previous mishaps and we made steady progress to our destination, a bivouac below the Col du Esperansa—the Col of Hope. We arrived early in the day, but with very warm temperatures and no sleep the previous night, we were content to lounge around and get some rest for the following day. It also gave us a chance to discuss some strategy for our summit climb. As it turned out, we weren’t going to be alone on this climb—at least six other teams had the same agenda.
Other than some sport cragging, Peter and I had never roped up together. But Peter, like myself, is a New Hampshire native and known in those parts for being a machine on the ice, a good trait for our intended climb. For myself, I have been doing most of my climbing and guiding in the Alps, which means spending a lot of time on crowded climbs. So, if I have a strength, it is perhaps moving efficiently amongst crowds while using my newly acquired European “people skills” (French audacity combined with Swiss unpretentiousness) to pass teams if need be. With that in mind, I volunteered Peter for the hard pitches and I would navigate the easy terrain and be in charge of passing any teams if we caught anyone. A cunning strategy, in my opinion.
Our plan was to set off at 1 a.m., which we thought would allow us to climb the lower section in the dark and arrive at the steeper pitches at first light. However, by 9:30 we were woken by one team gearing up only to discover another team was already 200 meters up the route. We tried our best to fall back asleep to no avail, and decided we might as well get on with it. By 11:30 p.m., just as the sun set, we turned our headlamps on and set out. We moved well together and soon we’d caught the teams in front of us. Without missing a beat we snuck past team of three Norwegians and soon found ourselves behind a team of three Argentines. Our strategy was working well and we were making good progress, but as the terrain got steeper it seemed that maybe our—well, my good fortune was coming to an end.
When Peter took over the lead, he decided to climb around a giant rime feature in hopes of passing the team in front, who’d slowed down considerably on the steep ground. I’ve never been a fan of climbing under teams on ice and was soon reminded why. Just after Peter left the belay, I was pummeled by some ice from the team above. I felt the warm blood flowing down my cheek and only hoped it wasn’t too serious. The cold air and some direct pressure helped clot the wound and soon I was on my way. However, my beating was not over, and for the next four or five pitches I somehow managed to get hit by ice and would arrive at the belay with a new cut on my face. In 15 years of climbing ice, I’ve taken a few good licks, but this was getting absurd. Nonetheless, we continued upward and soon arrived at the piece de resistance of the Ragni Route, the summit mushroom.
Most climbers, certainly climbers thinking of Cerro Torre, have heard horror stories of the final 50 meters of unconsolidated rime guarding the summit. Digging a tunnel through rime for hours, poor protection and outrageous exposure are common stories of the fabled last pitch. Normally, the experience is most memorable for the fist team up the route in the season, as the pitch typically gets easier with traffic. For us, the route had been climbed once two months earlier, but that did little to ease our nerves as we gazed up a 50-meter, slightly overhanging pitch of what resembled a snow cone.
After taking an ice beating on the previous pitches, my nerve for adventure was starting to wane. In light of this, I so graciously offered Peter the crux last pitch if he was inclined. He didn’t need any convincing and, in fact, his eyes seemed to glow at the challenge. We equipped his axes with some “wings” we had borrowed in hopes they would offer more purchase in the rime. After starting with a ridiculously exposed traverse, he was able to reach a narrow runnel that seemed to offer the best option for climbing and protection. Luckily for us, no tunneling was necessary, but the final pitch was nonetheless steep, engaged and of various quality ranging from bomber neve to unconsolidated sugar. As I expected, Peter’s time of scratching his way up virtually everything frozen in New England paid off and he styled what I considered a bold and very intimidating pitch.
Standing on top of Cerro Torre was really a dream come true for me, and it was even more special having dealt with so many obstacles en route to our climb. After some celebration on the summit it was time to negotiate the descent: many, many rappels complicated by the fact that our second rope had a knot in the middle where our furry friend had chewed through. After a variety of rappelling tactics, some help from parties lower on the route, and what seemed like endless V-threads, we arrived back at the previous night’s bivouac. While our adventure was far from over, the bulk of the work was done and it was time to relax and refuel before heading lower to the glacier. We waited until the lower slopes were in the shade and made our way down the glacier where we would have another bivy well positioned for the final day.
Considering how poorly the start to our adventure began I guess it was only fitting that it ended along the same lines. Despite waking up to good weather and clear skies, the glacier had not refrozen overnight. I’m not sure there is a worse feeling when you have miles to travel on a glacier without skis or snowshoes and you can’t stay on top of the surface crust even during the coldest part of the day. Peter and I are not built like sport climbers, plus add full packs to our alpine physique and we stood no chance of staying afloat. Given the horrible snow conditions, we teamed up with a French team to help with the trail breaking. It was a grueling exercise and our pace was slow. While my memory has erased many of the details from our final day, I vividly remember a very lean Frenchman tiptoeing his way on top of the weak crust while he was in the lead “breaking” trail. Peter and I in the back, our shins numb as we broke through the very same crust.
More than 13 hours later, we finished our scenic walk around the ice cap and arrived back in El Chalten where our adventure began. I had 12 hours to catch my flight home, and in the interim the legendary Argentine steak accompanying some local libations went a long way to soothe us back to reality. Our ascent of Cerro Torre was far from a ground-breaking climbing achievement—it’s been climbed numerous times and even soloed on a few occasions. Nonetheless, for me, it will remain one of the most memorable ascents of my life. The right amount of luck—both good and bad—and perseverance all came together for a first-class adventure. In the end, that’s really what I’m looking for. I don’t need to be the fastest or the first, but I I’m drawn to doing good climbs in good style with good partners and, in the end, that best sums up our ascent of Cerro Torre’s West face.
*Photos by Peter Doucette and Adam George