Solo fun in Patagonia

  • This is a little article about my 1987 trip to Patagonia where; having summited our main goal, Cerro Torre, on day 6, we were looking for things to do. At the time of my FA on Mojon Rojo, no one had climbed a new route solo on one of the big walls in the Fitz Roy group. Although the route is not hard, and is probably lost to obscurity now, it was a major step for me.

    We had been sitting around in camp for a week or so after climbing Cerro Torre and we were starting to get bored. One day Walt started fumbling around with the cams he had brought from the US; original Friends with knotted slings. He picked several out, then untied the end of the slings and cut the melted ends away. With a knife he opened the tubing and extracted thin sheets of paper: 100 hits of blotter acid, LSD. Walt was prepared for a long stay.

    The next week was stormy. We read, baked bread, ate, and generally enjoyed a week of relaxation. We each made the stroll down to the Hosteria a couple of times for beer and new faces and enjoyed the status of dirty heroes who had climbed Cerro Torre, not a common accomplishment in those days. The Austrians had summited the day after us, Daniel’s lack of crampons slowing them down a bit, but Daniel still claimed the first, and possibly only, crampon less ascent of Cerro Torre. They shared in the free beers and shots as well.

    Thanksgiving morning Walt was nowhere to be seen. Paul and I hung out in camp all day; I baked some bread and made a Tuna casserole for Thanksgiving dinner, turkeys were hard to come by, but Walt never appeared, so we ate, drank a bunch of wine, and wondered what had happened to Walt, then went to bed. Finally, about midnight, we heard the zipper of Walt’s tent, and so we both got up. Walt was on Shipley Drive, a legendary state bordering on mania, as he described his day’s adventure. In Shipley Drive, moments are not remembered, they are re-lived, and so Paul and I listened raptly as Walt described, move by move, his climb.

    Walt had left camp in the early AM planning a climb of Cerro Solo, an easy glacier climb by the normal route. He had forded the river below Laguna Torre but lost his footing on the crossing and was swept downstream for half a mile before he could escape the current. He managed to get out of the river on the opposite side and continued on until he spied a line on the un-climbed east face. Wearing wet clothing and climbing in Clark’s Rhinos with flexible crampons, Walt had on sight free soloed a new route up the 1000’ face, on acid, after nearly drowning in the Rio Poincenot.

    A couple of days after Walt’s solo we got neighbors. The Polish Women’s Cerro Torre Expedition moved into the empty hut next to ours. There were six beautiful young women along with Wanda Rutkiewicz, Himalayan goddess, and then there was Comrade Eva. Wanda and the girls were very friendly: Comrade Eva looked like she would willingly castrate the three of us in a heartbeat. Eva was 5’10”, probably weighed 200 lbs and resembled the power lifter she probably was; she was the morale officer. To Eva’s chagrin, the three wild haired Americans were more interesting than her training regimen, so several times a day she would sweep through our camp and herd her errant charges back to their side of the meadow. As she herded one group back however, the second group would come to visit. All casual flirtation, but it helped to pass the time.

    Wanda did whatever the hell she wanted to: Wanda was one of the most famous names in Himalayan climbing at that time, and certainly the most famous Polish climber: Comrade Eva had absolutely no power over her. She spent most of the time in our hut, telling stories and drinking tea, or wine, at times, and we all became good friends. Sadly she died 5 years later on Kanchenjunga.

    Another spell of good weather set in. The altimeter read 150 meters lower than normal and the sky was blue with no wind. Paul and Walt wanted to try the Super Couloir on FitzRoy. I had climbed FitzRoy by the Fun Hog route in 1983, and the Super Couloir is no place for three people, and so they set off one morning leaving me to my own plans. The Poles were busy with the Torre, and I had spied a line on the unclimbed Aguja de la S from the Torre valley. I left that afternoon, prepared to bivouac at the base. A couloir separates Aguja de la S from Mojon Rojo which Bridwell had climbed in 1977.

    I woke early and left my bivy at 2 AM to avoid rockfall in the couloir. I left my bivy gear at the base, planning to return for it later. My plan was to climb about 1000’ up the couloir before moving out left onto the N. face of Aguja de la S. The ice was solid, but heavily pockmarked from rockfall. I moved as quickly as I could but as it began to get light I saw that the line on the north face I had planned to climb looked extremely wet and loose. About that same time the first rocks started to whiz by, so I quickly ducked into a small chimney at the base of Mojon Rojo.

    My intended route was clearly out of the question, and descent would have been suicidal with the falling rocks, so I came to a quick decision. I would climb Mojon Rojo by a new route which started directly above me. I pulled out my meager rack and my100m x 9mm rope and started up the chimney. The climbing was mostly on verglassed rock in the chimney with minimal protection, but I got in a stopper, then a knifeblade and finally a tied off ice screw. At the end of my rope I found a decent anchor, and rapped to clean the pitch. After another 100m pitch I reached the top of the small gully and scouted the line above. A number of options were available so I chose a corner out right on the steeper part of the wall.

    I slipped my Koflach shells off and revealed my secret weapon, the Fire’ Invernals that John Bachar had given me to try. The Invernals were felt lined Fires’ with some of the stickiest rubber of the day. They were a bit bulky with thick socks and vapor barrier liners but they were warm. The route followed corners and flakes for a bunch of 50 m pitches on the doubled rope. I rounded a small corner and ended on a ledge. Again I had options, but the slab above the ledge, with two nearly connected arches looked more like Tuolumne climbing than Patagonian. At home on Tuolumne slab, I started up on the single rope again. Protection was sparse; I climbed 50’ before I managed to get in a 4 RP, then another 20’ to the top of the first arch where I placed a #2 friend. The base of the second arch was 20’ above and to the right. A line of small edges led to the right. I fed out rope from my clove hitch and started across, shoes squeaking on the smooth slab. A difficult sequence to gain the arch slowed me down as I tried one combination after another, knowing that a fall would have serious results: Rescue was not a concept; no one had any idea where I was, and I was the rescue team.

    Eventually I unlocked the sequence, a crossover, match hands on a tiny edge, high step the left foot to the chest, then step through with the right foot onto bald friction, then shift onto the foot and extend to a small crimp. Solo, with two pieces of marginal gear in 90’ I could not screw up. I gained the base of the second arch after what seemed forever; the corner was blank. I caught my breath and examined my options: Clearly there was no way back, I had to continue. I tried to place a knife blade, but the tip buckled in the bottoming seam.
    The moves above me didn’t look too bad. I stepped up, then back down several times before I committed. The rock was solid and occasional edges made the climbing reasonable and eventually I got in a third piece of gear. The rest of the pitch remains a blur. Finally I reached the literal end of my rope. I was 100m above the ledge with only a few pieces of gear and there was nowhere to stop. 10’ above me though, I could see a thin crack that looked like it would take a knife blade, but I was out of rope.

    By fighting against the stretch of the rope I was able to get one hand on a big edge; I drew my ice axe from its holster and hooked it on the ledge, then rigged a prusik off the axe. With a biner in the hole at the head of the axe I hauled slack through the prusik until I had enough rope to mantle on the edge where the axe was hooked. At my extreme reach I wedged the tip of a Bugaboo into the tiny crack and then carefully drew my N.W. hammer. I gently tapped the pin and then began to wail on it. I tied the pin off with a sling in case the axe popped, then drove the pin to the eye. The ring of steel has never sounded so good. I left the pin fixed there, the only sign of my passage in twenty pitches of new climbing.

    I knotted all of my slings together and clipped the end into my single pin, then untied from the rope and climbed up another ten feet, where I was able to place a decent nut to beef up my anchor, and finally rapped down to clean the pitch. Cleaning the pitch was a breeze with only three pieces to remove, and I was back at the anchor in 20 minutes. From there a variety of corners led towards the summit. Several more pitches of mixed free and aid put me on a big ledge beneath the summit block, where I unroped and free-soloed the last 12’ of 5.8 to the very top, and then down climbed to the ledge where I took a break before pulling my Koflach shells and crampons out of the pack for the descent.

    Besides a couple of ice screws and one picket, I only had a handful of nuts, a few cams and a couple of pins, so rapping the route was not going to be an option, but the glacier on the back side looked reasonable. I started down towards the schrund, front pointing down carefully until I could jump across. 100’ feet later the bottom dropped out, I plunged into a hidden crevasse unroped. I shot my two tools out sideways and arrested in an iron cross, the weight of my pack threatening to dislocate my shoulders and simultaneously trying to pull me over backwards, but somehow I found myself lying on the glacier seconds later, instead of broken or dead in the bowels of the bottomless blue hole.

    My predicament became very clear to me at that moment: I was alone on an unknown glacier heading down the opposite side of the mountain towards Rio Blanco. I was probably the first person to ever set foot on that glacier. There was clearly no way back, and I was not completely sure that I could make it down my chosen descent. I resolved to probe every step, so I started out very slowly, probing every six inches. Multiple times I found perfectly disguised crevasses and was forced to reverse my path, but eventually I found my way and was nearly within reach of solid ground. Fifty feet away I could see a ridge of glacier polished stone glowing golden in the sunlight but a huge crevasse separated me from safety.

    I made my way parallel to the rock rib looking for a way across but all I found was a huge, sagging bridge. After a couple of hours of searching I had found no safe crossing, but one section had a steep ramp leading to the bottom of the bridge, with a short climb out the other side. I placed a picket and doubled the rope through the sling so that I could retrieve it and gave myself 50’ of slack before I tied into the doubled rope. I readied my tools before committing to a glissade down the ramp, flat on my back. When I reached the transition I planted my feet, tipped forward and planted both tools in the ice on the other side of the bridge like it was nothing. It was probably the scariest moment in my life, but was over in a couple of seconds. I pulled the rope through leaving only the picket behind.

    I sat there for a short while, happy to be alive, admiring the swirls in the polish as if they were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. All that remained now was a couple of hours descending a moraine with everything at the angle of repose. The slightest touch sent giant boulders crashing down into the canyon below and I tread very carefully to avoid joining them. Eventually I reached the bottom and the forest below. A mile or so to my left was the camp at Rio Blanco, while our camp was in the Torre Valley. The surest way would have been to head to Rio Blanco, then hike the trail down to the Hosteria, then back up the Torre Valley, but I had heard about a little used track that contoured back to the Torre Valley and avoided miles of trail and thousands of feet of elevation loss and gain. I still had a couple of hours of light and I decided to chance it: It was after all, my lucky day.

    Where I crossed the Rio Blanco it was only a tiny stream. I found a faint trail which seemed to head in the right direction, so I followed it. The trail wound through the Beech forest, then opened into a swampy meadow, where it disappeared. Looking for the logical route, I ended up deep in the bog, up to my knees in mud and still wearing my harness and double boots. As I struggled to free myself, I noticed, sitting on a grass hummock 30 m away, an adult Puma: It was licking its paws and looking at me.

    I still had my ice tools holstered, so I drew them. Although I was pretty much helpless, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight, but the Puma was not interested and walked off into the trees after a tense minute or so. I finally climbed out of the bog and found the trail on the other side, more distinct now. I was hoping that my pack would protect my neck if I was attacked from behind, but was worried for no reason; I never saw the cat again.

    Finally the trail lead down a steep slope and joined the main trail in the Torre Valley. Two miles later I stumbled into our camp at Cabaña Thorwood. No one was home when I arrived more than twenty hours after I started climbing. I ate and drank my fill, and slept like a rock until late the next morning.

    Paul and Walt arrived home late the next afternoon. They had summited FitzRoy via the Super Couloir and had an epic descent. Eventually they had resorted to cutting the end of the 7mm rap line for anchor slings. For the second time in one season a team had summited two of the big peaks in a single season.

    After resting up a few days all three of us decided that we had had enough. We had had an amazing season, Summiting Cerro Torre and FitzRoy by established routes, and completing two solo first ascents. A period of rainy and windy weather hit, and we decided it was time to go home, so we began the process of packing up and carrying our stuff down. We gifted our excess food to the various teams waiting for their chances and did the last carry; the next day we started the long trip home.

  • WOW! super cool!. thank you for posting this!

  • @Scole Thanks Scott.

  • Much appreciation, for you taking the time to post this important history. More please!

  • Great story Scott! Good to hear from you!!

  • @urmas Great to hear from you too Urmas

  • Invernals.JPG

  • ScanImage 50119.JPG

    My route was left of the obvious left hand side of the prow. It started on the small snow ramp half way up the coulior.

  • Chalten from Mojon Rojo.JPG

  • Mojon Rojo Descent.JPG

    The sea of holes

  • Great stuff, Scott!