Cerro Torre - Trip Report - Ancient Climbing History

  • Sitting on the summit of FitzRoy and staring out at the Hielo Continental and at the Torres far below, our conversation turned towards the future. Scott Backes and I agreed that Cerro Torre was high on our list of climbing objectives, although there was no time left this trip. Backes and I made a tentative agreement to return at some unstated time, and then began our descent.

    November 1987 I returned to Patagonia with Walt Shipley and Paul Gagner. I had spent the past three years trying to talk various Yosemite climbers to venture beyond the secure walls of our little valley, but there were few takers. Finally Walt, a Yosemite legend, and Paul, a former Teton Climbing Ranger and all around hardcore climber, agreed to join me for an attempt on Cerro Torre. All three of us agreed that we wanted to climb something on the West Face, so we geared up for a major ice climb with pickets, flukes and many ice screws along with the standard rock gear.

    We flew to Buenos Aires and rented a small apartment for a night, an early predecessor to airbnb. A grocery store across the street filled our needs for our brief stay in the city. We bought some sandwich makings and a few beers and headed back to our bivy where we passed the last evening in BA. The next morning all three of us were up early and ready to roll. We gathered up our gear, and then at the last minute, remembered we had food left. The bread, cheese and mustard were in the fridge, but we had left the salami out. The salami was a little faded, but we were cheap so we stuffed it in the bag and headed for the airport.

    Our flight to Rio Gallegos was uneventful and we got a cheap room in town where we could gather food and other items that we would not find in Calafate, and for the next couple of days, we made forays to the market then returned to the room to survey our supplies. We were relying on buying most our food and fuel in Calafate.
    Finally content that we had enough rice, beans and other staples for a couple of months, we bought our tickets to Calafate for the next day. We bought a pizza and some beers for our dinner and Paul ate a couple of slices of the salami which was looking a little sketchy.

    The flight to Calafate was bumpy, but we arrived safely and had our mountain of gear taken to a new campground just below the airport. Calafate had grown in the past three years. There were a number of trekkers in the campground, but we found a spot and started to set up camp. Paul was not feeling well: he was a little pale and sweaty, and belching up sour salami. Suddenly, Paul bolted for the bushes. We could hear the sounds of retching and vomiting. In retrospect, maybe the un-refrigerated salami was not a good idea after all. Walt and I were both glad we had not eaten any.

    While Paul was on his knees vomiting, a woman strolled into camp and said hello. We exchanged greetings. Her name was “loneliness” and she said she worked in a “Cabaret” in town. She took a look at Paul, still retching and said: “what’s the matter with your friend? Is he lovesick?”
    Paul recovered from his love sickness without treatment, and the three of us got to work procuring food, fuel and wine for a two month stay. We found that, because we had arrived very early in the season, there were no buses going to FitzRoy, so we scoured town for a driver. Finally we found a guy with a Combi (a VW van) who would drive us to the park, for a price, so we arranged to meet the next morning.

    We were all up early, ready to get moving, but hours passed and the driver still didn’t show. Finally I tracked him down. His excuse was that the van had just been rebuilt, but was not completely ready, but would be the next day. Not really having any other options available, we agreed to wait till the next day.

    The driver showed up as promised, with a primer coated Combi that was probably built in the 60’s. The standard case of oil was on the floor behind the driver’s seat, and a large box of tools shared the space. The thing was running a little rough, but it was a VW, so that was pretty normal. We roared off at 40 kph with no muffler and headed north. At the turn towards the park I was surprised to see that the road was now paved, so we cruised along, sometimes reaching 60kph, until the oil light on the dash started to glow a faded yellow.

    A lit up oil light on a VW van is pretty much normal, but we pulled over to check just in case. Our ride smelled strongly of oil and, when we opened the engine access, we could see that it was spraying oil from somewhere, but we had a case, so no big deal. We filled her up and started out again, stopping periodically to give her a drink. As the miles slowly crawled past, our driver revealed that the van actually did not belong to him. The real owner, his brother in law, had gone to Buenos Aires for work, and had not finished re-building his 1963 Combi. It was mostly done, but there were still a few extra parts and a few spare bolts.

    Hotel La Leona came into view across the river. We crossed the narrow bridge and pulled up in a cloud of black smoke. My Gaucho friends from 1983 were there, still leaning in the exact same position that had been in four years before. They greeted me like a long lost friend, obviously they remembered that I was the only person to have ever stuck the ring toss on the first try and made them pay for the drinks for a change. Our appearance roused them from their repose and they started to hustle the few travelers around into attempting the ring toss. There were a few takers, all of whom missed, and with my exalted status, I shared in the winnings. Half a dozen shots of brandy later we said goodbye and loaded into the van for the second half of the drive.

    There had been no oil to spare at Hotel la Leona and there were only four quarts of oil left in the case. It was starting to look like we might not have enough for the one way trip, much less the drivers return, but we were committed now.

    A few miles down the road, there is a fork where the left leads to FitzRoy; to the right is Tres Lagos, an old west town with a bad reputation for violence. We pulled into a flat spot near the creek to check the oil and all of us got out to stretch. Several dogs sprung, barking furiously, out of the willows lining the creek bank, followed by a wild haired Gaucho with two knives and a pistol in his sash. “Get in now” yelled the driver in a panic, unmasked fear in his eyes. We needed no second warning, and we all dove into the van and roared off with the doors open and the engine hatch flapping until we were half a mile down the road.

    Our driver stopped again, sweating and still hyperventilating. There had been a double murder in Tres Lagos two days before, and the guy in the bushes was a wanted man who had killed before. After a couple of minutes processing our near demise, we poured a quart of oil in and headed off. Quart by quart we got closer to FitzRoy, until it became clear that there was not enough oil to get us there. At the rate we were using it, we would run out about 60 miles before arriving.

    Visible several miles ahead was a narrow side road that climbed away from the river towards an estancia in the distance. The driver eyed the estancia, but it was obvious he did not want to go there. Regardless, there was no other option, so we turned towards our only alternative. After twenty minutes of climbing, we arrived at an impressive looking compound. The area was surrounded by concertina wire with only one opening which was gated with a small guard house. A small plane was visible, along with numerous trucks and a helicopter. Two guards approached the van, machine pistols at the ready and escorted the driver into the guard house at gun point. We were told to stay in the van.
    After five minutes or so, a truck arrived at the gate. Two more armed guards got out and opened the rear door to help an old, white haired man alight. The man approached us and offered his hand. In accented English he welcomed us and introduced himself as Roman. We explained our situation, and that we were there to climb the Torre. “You are climbers” said Roman: “Do you know Walter Bonati?” It seems that Bonati had stopped in at this remote estancia on a visit in the 1950’s, and Roman had hosted him. He invited us to join him for lunch.

    The house was beautiful. The view from the massive front window looked directly at FitzRoy, with miles of wind swept pampas in between. We didn’t know Bonati, but we certainly knew of him. Roman told us he had moved to this lonely place in the late 1940’s, and had no neighbor’s for many miles. As we looked around the house we could see a gorgeous grand piano, spectacular art work hung on the walls. Some of the art work looked like Renaissance masterpieces, but none of us chose to look too closely.
    By now it was obvious that Roman was a former Nazi who had escaped to Argentina with vast stolen wealth. The guards, the concertina wire, the drivers fear were clear indications that this was someone that the locals left alone. He was very nice to us. We ate well, drank several bottles of excellent wine, then Roman wished us luck, invited us to return, and had the driver take us back to the gate where the guards release our driver from the guard house and gave us three quarts of oil. Three quarts was just enough to get us to our destination. I still have no idea how the driver got the stolen van back, nor do I care.

    We dumped our bags in the new campground and paid off the driver who took off looking for oil, I assume; glad to be rid of us. The park had changed since I had been here last. The road had ended at the Hosteria in 1983, and the river ford was now crossed by a concrete bridge. A number of buildings were visible across the river that had not been there in 1983 either. The town of Chalten had appeared in a four year span. The bridge crossed the Rio Poincenot and the little town had restaurants, bars, a post office and a police station. Numerous houses were under construction. During one wind storm while we were there the wind blew all of the windows out of the new houses.

    The weather was perfect: Not a cloud in the sky or a breath of wind. They told us at the Hosteria that it had been like that for a week and the weather had been good for much of the spring. After my experience in 1983 I knew that weather like this was not to be wasted. We had a quick decision to make: Spend three days approaching the West face of Cerro Torre, or go for the Compressor route right then. I insisted that whatever we decided, we needed to do it right then. The obvious choice was to make a quick summit attempt by the closest route, then spend the rest of the trip on more exalted objectives.

    Everyone agreed on the plan for a quick summit attempt. We loaded our packs with everything to establish basecamp and then lashed our climbing packs full of gear on the back for a single carry to basecamp and an alpine style attempt on the Compressor Rt. The hike to the Maestri camp where we set up a tent and continued on towards the Torre was brutal with the huge packs, but in a single carry we were established and ready for an attempt. We set up a tent, threw our extra stuff inside and kept going. Shortly above Maestri camp is a gully about 100 yards across which was avalanching every few minutes. We paused there to watch, and to rest, for a bit. We timed the slides: About every seven minutes massive slides of snow and ice wiped the gully clean. To be caught in the middle would be fatal. Finally, when an especially large slide had roared past, we bolted, every man for himself. The three or four minutes it took to cross the bowling alley seemed an eternity, but we all made it and after a couple of minutes to catch our breath from the sprint we shouldered our packs again just as the next slide roared past right on schedule.

    The rest of the approach was pretty casual, a bit of side hill scree then walking on flat glacier with no major crevasses to speak of. At the base of the Torre a large overhanging boulder provided a decent bivy site where we checked our gear one last time. Paul was still feeling weak from the salami incident, and both Paul and Walt wanted to go back and rest. Having been there before, and knowing that this weather was unlikely to hold I wanted to go right then, but my partners convinced me to wait as I really had no choice anyway.

    We stumbled back to Maestri camp, an exposed and crowded place, and then decided to descend all the way to the Hosteria. At least we could do another carry while we waited. On the way down we took a look at Campo Bridwell, where the Bird had stayed during his climb of Cerro Torre. In Campo Bridwell we met two New Zealanders who had summited both FitzRoy and Cerro Torre in their three week stay; the first time any team had ever summited two of the big peaks in one season. They were leaving over a month early and offered to sell us their extra food and supplies for $100. For us it was a great deal, we acquired lots of food, bread making supplies and recipes, pots and pans, etc., enough for a month at least, and we didn’t have to carry it six miles. They also told us about another more isolated camp down in the forest called Cabaña Thorwood.

    Cabaña Thorwood was actually two cabañas in a small meadow surrounded by forest about 20 minutes below Campo Bridwell. Unlike the exposed Maestri and Bridwell camps, it was somewhat sheltered from the wind, had an easy water source, a small spring a couple of minutes away, and apparently unlimited firewood. The two huts were empty, so we chose the larger of the two. The hut was built around a large flat stone which formed a table, and there was a small wood stove with a chimney built out of flattened tin cans. This would make a perfect basecamp for us.

    We dropped our bags there and retuned to campo Maestri to retrieve our tent and gear, then made a couple of trips with the New Zealanders food to Cabaña Thorwood before we headed down to the Hosteria for another load and some rest. The next day was perfect too. I was going stir crazy watching a perfect weather window slip past, but we need to be strong. We moved back to our base camp to make it our home. The North Face had loaned us several prototype tents so we set them up in the meadow and threw our bags in. Even down in the trees the winds could be strong, so we staked them out heavily. It was blowing pretty hard, but we went into the hut to make dinner. I came out a bit later and something was different. Where there had been three tents, now there were two. The wind had pulled 18 tent stakes out and stolen our tent!

    Still windy the next morning we split up to search for our lost tent. Paul and Walt searched along the river while I climbed the ridge behind camp for a broader view. We searched for hours with no result, and so I had started back down when I suddenly caught sight of a patch of Yellow through the dense Beech trees. Sure enough, there was the tent 600’ above camp. There were a couple of broken poles and a tear in the fly, but it was pretty much intact. I gathered it up and stuck it in my pack, happy that I could not only return the tent to its owners later, but that my private suite was still available. I had learned that private accommodations were essential for expedition harmony on my previous trip.
    A couple more windy days passed, but no storms. If this weather held we might still have a shot and, sure enough, the next day was clear with no wind. We packed up and started the climb to Campo Maestri, then sprinted across the bowling alley as quickly as we could. The sky was clear blue, no clouds, and no wind. We grabbed our gear from the cache at the boulder bivy and put on crampons for the first time to begin the slog up the glacier to the base.

    The few large crevasses were easily avoided and we were able to move un roped to the base of the climbing. We soloed the first 2000’ of 50 to 60 degree ice with a few bands of rock to the Col of Hope where we took a short break before starting the real climb. The climbing was actually fun, clean rock with occasional sections of moderate mixed climbing for pitch after pitch. We encountered a few fixed pins, but no bolts on our first day. After about ten pitches we reached an ice slope where we chopped a bivy ledge as the ridge steepened considerably above us. Shortly after we arrived, an Austrian team reached the ice slope below us and started to chop their own bivy. They were directly below us and the debris from our chopping kept hitting them, but none of us had any options and they accepted it with smiles. Tony and Daniel settled in below us and we prepared for the night.

    Recalling my bivy on FitzRoy four years before, I had sworn I would never bivy without a sleeping bag again. I had designed an ultra-light down sleeping bag with no zipper and Paul’s friends at Feathered Friends had sewn us three of them, which they donated for the trip, but when it came down to it every extra ounce mattered, so Paul and I left ours behind. Walt had his sleeping bag, but Paul and I only had bivy sacs. The night was brutally cold as we sat on our ten inch wide ledge constantly moving our fingers and toes to maintain circulation. The full moon rose over the shoulder of FitzRoy lighting up the entire north face. It was beautiful, but the moment the sky started to lighten we were ready to move. Tony and Daniel started to get ready as well, but Daniel had forgotten his crampons, so they were a bit slower than us.

    The Banana Crack was next: A short, steep section of thin crack with old tat hanging down. Walt fired it in a few minutes, pulling on everything. This was years before free climbing Cerro Torre was a concept. The summit was the goal and French Free was the name of the game. The next few pitches were similar, rock with an occasional bolt ladder, and moderate mixed until we reached the base of the infamous bolt traverse where the ridge joined the main wall. There were 14 bolts at the anchor, the first we had seen. Two or three of them were Cassin eye bolts like the ones Maestri had used, the rest were newer. We started across the bolt traverse, more Cassin eye bolts, well-spaced, with lots of ratty slings and bits of old rope here and there. The next pitch was mine, a combo of free climbing, aid and bits of ice, at times all three at once. Soon enough we were at the base of the ice towers, seven pitches of mostly ice, with a couple short ladders thrown in, that lead to the base of the headwall.

    I lead the first pitch in the ice towers. It started in a short chimney and then climbed perfect 50 degree, green, plastic ice, traversing slightly until I was forced to step out over the south face with massive exposure. I finished with a bit of rock, melting frozen cams with my breath for the anchor, and fixed the rope for the others.

    The next few pitches in the ice towers were the most enjoyable climbing on the route. The exposure was spectacular, with a drop bigger than El Cap beneath your feet as you weave in and out of the towers. The final pitch in the ice towers was a short bolt ladder, followed by a traverse on ice above a giant maw which led to the base of the headwall.
    We started up the headwall pitches where the bolts were sometimes 2 feet apart. It was often possible to clip from the third step of your aiders. As we finished the second of the headwall pitches the Austrians appeared at the ice traverse below the headwall. Tony led, placing a couple of screws to protect his crampon less partner. I watched in horror as Daniel took a huge swing, disappearing into the maw, but a while later he reappeared uninjured, jumaring the fixed rope.

    The compressor was huge. It hung suspended from several points, and looked like it would run with a little gas, even though it had been there for 16 years. One of the anchor biners, a locker, looked like it had been hit by lightning. The lock was welded shut: Clipped to the biner were three new wooden wedges, possibly Maestri’s. I tapped away at the gate with my N.W. hammer, and managed to break the weld. I opened the gate, took one of the wedges (Ken Yager now has it), and hammered the gate shut again.

    The next lead, the penultimate, was mine. Maestri had chopped his bolts on the final headwall pitch on the descent. When Bridwell repeated the route, he re-drilled the final ladder using widely spaced rivets instead of the bolts that Maestri had used. I quickly found I had made a mistake in using my standard, hand tied Yosemite aiders. I always tied the top steps to barely fit a wall boot, but when I tried to top step 6000’ above the glacier, only the tip of my Koflach would fit. Every rivet was at maximum reach, with at least one hook move and a scary fixed copperhead. A fall would have ripped the entire pitch, and possibly the anchors. The entire time on the headwall ice was crashing down around us as the mushrooms shed. Sometimes the pieces were the size of a fist, others the size of a car. So it was a tenuous lead up between the mushrooms which hung 50’ out into space over our heads.

    The final lead was Paul’s. It started with thin edging with crampons directly off the belay until he placed a single ice tool in the tiny icicle that dripped from the summit. A hard pull and he sunk a second tool into thicker ice with crampons scratching the rock and throwing sparks, and then he was up on the summit plateau. A screw and a picket made up the anchor, and I was very happy to pull off the headwall and onto solid ice.

    With all three of us on the summit plateau, we un-roped and headed over to the base of the bigger mushroom where a large brass ship’s bell, which we all rang, was anchored to an ice screw. Cerro Torre’s famous summit mushrooms are atmospheric ice: Like cornices, they change. One day may present a giant overhang, where the next it may be a walk. When we were there it was possible to walk up low angle snow to a short bulge of rime. Walt stuck his head up onto the summit but was unable to stand due to the raging wind coming off the continental ice cap. He had both tools planted shoulder deep and his feet were flagging. Night was coming quickly, and we had thousands of feet to descend, so we started down.

    The first rap into space was terrifying with only the screw and a picket for anchors and 6000’ feet of air below. I went first, rapping on a single line with a belay from above. The wind was raging now, bits of ice falling from the mushrooms crashed down around me. By the time I reached the belay it was getting dark. The others joined me and we started the 33 rappels it would take to reach the base.

    It was snowing hard and the winds were fierce as we rappelled over and over into the dark, hoping our memory of the route was sufficient to find the next anchor. We left slings and biners at every anchor. Finally, at 5 am, we reached the Col of Hope where we made a cup of tea from an old teabag and rested for an hour before doing the final raps down the approach couloir.

    We regained our cache at the boulder bivy, collected our things, and then stumbled our way back to Campo Maestri, then on to our home at Cabaña Thorwood where we ate and drank our fill, still amazed at the fact that we had summited Cerro Torre in our first week in Patagonia. Now what would we do for the next two months?

  • @Scole

    Awesome sauce!

    Thanks bunches fer' the climbing content, matey! 🐕 👍

  • Alas, I be a busy boy w/the Teamcool Network move and then prepping to move house so I've not had much forum time and I've yet to read this in entirety.... but.... I was hoping there might be some follow up pics?? 📷 🏔

  • Ive got lots of pics. Will post when i get home tomorrow

  • Nice stuff! Looking forward to the pics.

  • Scole! Beautiful writing & an absolutely awesome adventure. I am honored that you choose to share it with us. Thank you!

    (sorry that it took me so long to review your Cerrot Torre achievement, but I've been on the road & busy.)

  • Im glad you enjoyed the story. I wish others would post some climbing content here too!

  • I swear, I'll post some climbing reports in October. Thank you for the wonderful ones you have shared & mine will not be nearly as significant.

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  • @Scole Yeah, okay, I am about to be spending some otherwise empty days recovering from a minor surgical procedure, so I'll try to post something worth reading...

    Un-named, un-climbed.jpg

  • @David-Harris Now your talkin. Where is that, Alaska I would guess

  • @Scole

    I will posit somewhere B.C. or Alberta?

    That said, I would love to start a new thread w/this one once we get past the teaser... 😜

  • The buttress on the left looks awesome

  • Back to the Torre:

    The Bridwell rivet pitch (it was not all rivets). (photo Shipley collection. R.I.P.)

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    Paul Gagner low down on the S.W. Ridge

  • @Scole

    Paul Gagner low down on the S.W. Ridge

    eKat would love that photo.

  • @Scole said in Cerro Torre - More climbing content- Another trip report about ancient climbing history:

    The Bridwell rivet pitch (it was not all rivets). (photo Shipley collection. R.I.P.)

    I didn't know Walt climbed in Patagonia, much less with Bridwell..

  • @johntp Walt climbed Cerro Torre, Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Solo in 1987 on a trip with Paul Gagner and I. Bridwell was not there