ONE HELLUVA WEEK

“This next pitch looks incredibly splitter, but I don’t know if I can climb it, Josh. I’m so worked.”

niponino-josh-scared-225x300“Dude, you’ve totally got it, you’ll be fine,” Josh replies as we gaze up the final 5.11 pitch on Aguja Mermoz’s Red Pillar (600m, 5.12-). From there another thirty meters of 5.10 will deposit us on the ridgeline for a few hundred meters of easy climbing to the summit. It is our fifth straight day of activity in the mountains. It seems that in Patagonia “when it rains it pours” applies to the good weather as well as the bad.

Hang in there folks, this is gonna be a long one.

Five days earlier we shouldered packs alongside our friend Pete Fasoldt and headed off on the 15 kilometer jaunt up valley, over glacier, and across moraine to Niponino, advanced basecamp in the Torre Valley. The forecast for the next week was marginal, no real fantastic weather but not terrible either. Although the next few days were clear of precipitation and relatively high pressure, the predicted winds were too strong for any large objectives. Nonetheless, Josh and I were tired of sitting in town and decided to make some proverbial lemonade. We set our sights on Media Luna or El Mocho, two small rock climbing objectives that are protected from the wind and therefore perfect for short, marginal rock climbing days. Pete’s partner, Eli, wasn’t as optimistic, so Pete jumped on board with us and off we went. Pete also provided the fire and motivation to turn that “or” into an “and” – why not do a linkup of both Media Luna and Mocho in a day?

We got a standard early start and Josh was leading the first pitches of Media Luna’s Rubia y Azul(350m 5.11) with a beautiful alpine sunrise in the background. We chose to start via the Italian variation which climbs the spur to the left of the original line’s large dihedral, as the dihedral looked wet and wide. At the top of the first tower Pete took the sharp end and did some exciting wet slab moves to gain the splitter cracks up the second tower and into the gaping maw above that houses the final and crux pitch. He cruised through the 5.11 wideness and deposited us right below the summit. We took turns scrambling onto the summit block for photos, then began the descent, which was amazingly straightforward with only a few minorly stuck ropes.

Back at the base at 2 PM we discussed whether to press on to El Mocho or to call it a day. Once you’re on the ground, especially after an alpine objective, it can often be difficult to go right back up into the fray. Pete was fully psyched but not pushy, I was ambivalent but ready to go for it, and Josh was a bit more reserved. We resolved to at least walk over to Mocho, see where that put us on the time schedule, and decide from there.

El Mocho and Media Luna are separated chiefly by a massive gully chute of slabs and waterfalls. We dropped down a bit and traversed below the snow line on wet and dry low angled slabs, aiming for a large ledge that would hopefully traverse around to join the standard approach. Traversing the slabs carrying a heightened sense of anxiety since we were surrounded by massive chunks of snow and ice that had calved off and slid from above. Arriving at the ledge we saw that it was going to take some real deal rock scrambling to gain the base of Mocho. Pete and Josh were wearing approach shoes with sticky rubber while I just had running shoes, so naturally I was set off to lead the wet 5.8 slab pitch. Shortly thereafter we were at the base and simulclimbing the first few hundred meters of the Benetiers (400m 6c A1).

I led the first block to the base of the crux pitch, but Pete had to lead a short splitter corner when I ran out of rope and set a super awkward hanging belay. Josh saddled up for the crux lead, which Chris Ryder and Josh Wharton had freed just a few weeks prior at 5.12-. Our Josh gave it a heroic go, but the finicky beta proved just out of reach and so for us the Benetiers would stay 6c A1. By sunset we were on top of the route, and like most who climb El Mocho we took that as the ‘top’ rather than climb the long, low angled snow slope to the true summit. Another straightforward series of rappels found us at our bags, and after searching around in the dark we found the descent route and stumbled through the talus to our tent 22 hours after starting. The long coveted and aspired to (read: neither) “Media-Mocho” linkup was complete.

We slept in the next morning, then packed up and started the walk back down to town that Monday afternoon. There was a small group of climbers at Niponino, some of whom reported that the weather looked good for the next few days. However, their reports were qualitative “goods” rather than any sort of quantitative summary of actual meteorological factors so we gave them little heed. On the way down we passed a number of climbers headed up, but none of them were American. A little background on that last comment so I don’t sound xenophobic: the Americans here seem to have the most refined understanding and interpretation of the weather, whereas other climbing teams go out at very marginal times.

Unfortunately, our growing fears we affirmed when we reached town. Almost every climber was gone or leaving for the mountains. The week ahead had taken a strong turn for the better. Much of climbing in Patagonia is about waiting for the good weather windows and conserving energy for when they materialize; it appeared we had blown ourselves out too early. Even worse, we learned from our friends in town that, inspired by the weather, Eli (Pete’s partner) had loaded up with food and hiked up to intercept us. Somehow we had missed each other like two ships in the night (or just guys walking across the glacier in daylight) and now Eli was sitting up in the Torre Valley alone while Pete was back in town.

With no other real options, after a night’s sleep in town Pete rallied on Tuesday morning and took off back to Niponino. By the afternoon Josh and realized we couldn’t let this window slip by, tired as we were. Our friend Joel Kauffman had a gear cache at another advanced base camp called Piedra Negra on the other side of the range. We teamed up for a go at Aguja Mermoz’s ultra-classic Red Pillar. Josh led the first 8 pitches to the top of the first tower, which included all the crux pitches (his agreed upon penance for spending the month of November climbing in the Red River Gorge).

With its bolted belays every 30-35 meters the Red Pillar couldn’t be easier to descend. All you need is one 70 meter rope, and the climb is so steep that getting your rope stuck on pulls is hardly a concern. A few hours back across the glacier, down the talus gully from Paso Guillamet, and another collapse into the tent after another 20+ hour day. The next afternoon we downed some painkillers and made it back to town.It was some of the most beautiful, splitter crack climbing I’ve ever seen. I took over for the last 4 pitches of 5.10 and 5.11, halfway through which Josh and I had the opening conversation. Then Joel ropegunned us to the top like a pro.

It was good news for Team Gringo all around: Pete and Eli had completed an entirely new route on Desmochada, Circus Pets, so named for the painkillers that allowed Pete to continue climbing after pulling off a huge block and taking a lead fall early in the morning. Kate and Mikey had changed their plane ticket to complete their new route on Fitz Roy, The Washington Route. Hayden and John climbed the Red Pillar just ahead of us (Hayden onsighted, respect). Wharton and Neil Kaufman climbed a new free variation on Desmochada. Last of all, Jason Kruk and Chris Geisler gave a hell of an effort on the SE ridge of Cerro Torre, making it to within 40 meters of the top of the headwall without clipping any of the Maestri bolts.

As always, check out Josh’s blog for a different perspective on the whole adventure.

Now we’re relaxing in town, but staring down the barrel of what looks to be another, even better, weather window, trying to convince Josh to change his plane ticket…

Myself and Joel following in T-shirts!
Myself and Joel following in T-shirts!