EL CUMBRE PRIMO – SAINT EXUPERY

claro de luna approachIt has certainly been a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year here in Chalten. The holidays have brought with them an unbelievable spell of good weather, in fact there are very few of us climbers in town right now as almost everyone has headed up into the mountains.

Last week when the beginning of the window looked like it would materialize – rather than vanish like a phantom as all the other potential “windows” had over the last month – my friend Jarrod and I loaded up and headed for the high camp in the Torre Valley, Niponino. The hike to Niponino is a relatively flat 12 miles or so, but the route-finding and terrain of the glacier crossing and moraines can be tricky, especially with 80+ pound packs. Arriving in camp Monday evening we made plans to climb Claro de Luna (800m, 6c) on Saint Exupery the following morning, ate some food, and tried to get some sleep.

When the iPhone alarm buzzed me awake at 4 AM the wind was whipping the tent around like Richard Simmon’s curly locks. A quick conference with the Italians, who were also forestalling their attempt on Cerro Torre, and back to sleep.

Wednesday morning’s wake up call was far more promising. The dark morning was clear and still, and delightfully warm. A quick breakfast of some oatmeal-ish substance with hot cocoa and we were on the trail. Jarrod is a seasonal wild firefighter, so he’s what you’d call a “fast hiker.” With his charge across the rocky moonscape, up the approach ramp, and across the snow slopes – and my desperate attempt to keep pace – we were at the base by 7:30 AM and began racking up. Unfortunately, we had been beaten by an Argentine team who had bivied closer than us. No matter.

Jarrod took the first block of pitches across the slabs, up a sketchy basalt dike, and the crux 6c (5.11), splitter corner. We swung leads every 4 pitches or so, with the second free climbing rather than jumar; we had a light pack with only jackets, water, and food, so climbing seemed just as fast and much more fun.  Nearly every of the 20 pitches was classic and stellar rock quality, the only exceptions being that first, loose basalt pitch and a wet, flaky slab pitch I led up higher. 18 out of 20 ain’t bad! For those who know my climbing style, you’ll be happy to know I got to employ a killer heel hook on one of my crux leads. Oh yeah!

I was lucky enough that the final leads to the summit were mine, but foolish enough on the final pitch to climb a stout ringlock splitter to a super cruxy traverse whilst the easy snow slope was right around the corner. I set an anchor, cleaned my Pyrrhic efforts, and ascended the snow to the summit block at around 8 PM (which was not without excitement since I was wearing rock shoes and the snow was slush). A quick celebration on the summit and now for the real adventure: the descent.

I hate descending, of all types. Hiking down is jarring and painful, the joy of climbing and the summit are behind you; all that remains is a chore. As bad as hiking is, rappelling is far, far worse. Ropes get stuck, anchors can be hard to find and scary to trust (who doesn’t love old webbing looped around a block?). To minimize stuck ropes we chose to do single rope rappels as much as possible and leave the 6 millimeter tag line in the pack. It meant leaving some gear behind for anchors, but worked in that I only had to scramble up 20 feet once to free a stuck rope. Around 1:30 AM we tried our first double rope rappel; we were above a huge, clean looking vertical face with no idea what was below. Near the end of the ropes I pendulumed far left and found a small ledge with another anchor. Very excited and relieved, Jarrod joined me and we went to pull the ropes. Nothing. We teamed up and pulled as hard as possible. Still Nothing. They were obviously caught around something which we couldn’t see in the looming darkness above.

The sun would be up in a few hours, and everything is always better in the morning, so I pulled the small foam pad out of my backpack frame, we squeezed into a 3 ounce emergency bivy sack, and cuddled up tight to nod in and out til morning. Nothing is wrong with a little man-cuddle, and its difficult to overstate the value of shared body heat…

We awoke to yells of “Libre!” and saw the Argentine team continuing their descent just a few hundred feet to our right. They were as relieved to see us as we to see them. Now we just had to find a way to free the ropes and continue down. In the light I could see them caught in a corner above, and succeeded in whipping the thin tag line free. Pulling as hard as possible, we managed to move the ropes an inch or so. Excitedly we rigged a 3 to 1 pully system and with a great deal of effort had the ropes down in about half an hour. Yahoo!

A few more rappels and we met up with the Argentines, and continued the descent together. The day just kept getting better and better: we had been out of food and water since the evening prior, and while hopefully digging for an elusive GU packet I came across an unopened packet of Shrek cookies! Around noon we reached our bags, unlaced our rock shoes for the first time in 30 hours (TC Pros = awesome), and stumbled a few hours back to Niponino.

Been back in town for a few days now, and my buddy Josh just arrived from Boulder. We are stoked for a serious mission! The weather is tantalizing us right now, looking potentially good this week. Keeping one eye on the meteogram as we plot our moves…