Two months into a four month stint on the Austral Plane and it's been more than half a year since my annual shearing. When the wind blows shaggy hair into my eyes, I can relate to this El Chalten dog. A lot of dogs in this small town have no manners. This little one is a perfect exception. RESPECT.
Jens and I simul-climb the last bit to the Standhardt col.
The Fitz Roy group bathed in twilight as seen from high on Standhardt.
After dumping water out of my boots at the base of the Exocet ice chimney, they were wet for the rest of the night. My feet began to ache as we hiked the rubble strewn Torre glacier on the final approach to camp. This is what they looked like when I finally pulled off the boots. No permanent damage. However, I would recommend not climbing waterfalls without waterproof pants...
We were lucky that the sun was out when we woke from a short nap.
The last month has been CRAZY down here at the Southern tip of Argentina. I recently returned from eight days in the mountains and am reflecting on one of the warmest and driest periods in recent El Chalten history. May the following tales help everyone understand the ups and downs, the Ying and the Yang, and challenge of finding balance while alpine climbing in one of the Great Ranges of the Earth.
My Christmas present was a thorough soaking (think cold shower while standing in a tub of ice cubes). Jens and I reached the Jammed Block on Cerro Standhardt shortly after the sun hit us. On the East side of the col the temps were well above freezing with no wind. On the West side, that faces the second largest non-polar ice cap in the world, temps were well below zero with a heat stealing wind.
Jens and I down-climbed back onto the warm side and kicked a ledge in order to melt water, rewarm, and come up with a plan. We had brought rock gear to attempt Festerville and ice gear to climb Exocet. This was the decision point. The idea of climbing rock with bare hands in the bitting wind was altogether unappealing. We decided to wait and see if the wind would abate as it was predicted to do.
We made a couple liters of water and ate some food while we waited. Eventually we decided to head up to Exocet and hoped to use a strategy that would put us at the base while the ice was refreezing. Many traversing pitches with snow and ice barely sticking to slabs and refrozen crust on top of otherwise iso-thermic snow brought us to the base of the chimney. I peered up into the gash and told Jens that I had waited forfive years for this moment. The water flowing under the ice below the climb did little to deter me from launching into the shoulder width lower section. One ice screw placement later I was yelling down to Jens that it was even better than I had imagined.
Exocet is either a Water Ice dream or a WI 5++ nightmare depending on conditions. At the 30 meter mark, I was realizing that it may be in the later condition. Freezing water ran inside my waterproof jacket and down my arms. The ice was steep and flowing. The flow increased the higher I climbed. Cam and nut placements became almost non-exhistant as verglas covered every inch of rock on either side of the ice. When the ice bulged to vertical and slightly steeper I was forced to bring my hips under the icy flow. My knees soaked out first. I soon realized that water was flowing down into my boots. I could feel the ice cold water pooling around my feet. At 50 meters I looked up and was able to locate a rock anchor 15 meters ahead. I placed the last ice screw and launched into steep flowing ice and technical stemming.
Controlling my breath, I was able to channel the rising fear and finish the run-out. There was a small rock rib in the ice I stood on and contemplated the situation. The rock anchor was ten horizontal feet from the ice. I had no more ice screws and the broken black rock of the dike that formed the chimney was chocked with ice. In these conditions, pitons are an alpine climber's best friend. I drove in two lost arrow pitons and scraped the ice from a couple more cracks in search of a nut or cam placement. A red C3 fit in and although I questioned the integrity of the fractured black rock, it was frozen and the cam appeared solid. A final nut placement rounded out the anchor I intended to tension off of in order to reach the rappel anchor.
Jens took one rope tight and I opposed the tension by pushing off the opposite wall and clipped the second rope into the rappel anchor. At this point I was using a lot of energy trying to think clearly. Hypothermia was tightening it's grip. It was going to be a real challenge for me to back up the rap anchor, clean the anchor I built, and rappel while cleaning the pitch. Fortunately the climbing had been engaging enough and building the system was taking enough energy that I was able to keep dexterity in my fingers. I clipped a shoulder length runner to the high piton in the rap anchor and clipped it to the rope. Next, I tethered myself into the rap anchor. Once tethered I untied from both ropes and retied the ropes together and put myself on rappel with a backup. Finally, I cleaned the pitons and the cam. I left one nut and a sling with a carabiner because it provided a backup to the rap anchor.
While I rappelled and cleaned the 65 meter pitch, Jens lit the Jetboil and prepared from my arrival. The temps had dropped below freezing and there was ice on the gear and the ropes. I believe to have launched into the chimney an hour too early. When I reached the belay I was beginning to shiver. I pulled off all the soaked clothing, except the pants, and put on a my only dry jacket. Jens gave me his down jacket and I sat down to dump the water out of my boots. A liter of hot water later, I was feeling pretty good about the situation. It would only be a matter of suffering. I knew that continuous movement would be the only way. We prepared for the descent and I belayed Jens back across the ramp systems that had brought us the the base of Exocet. Once again we are reminded that timing is everything!
Exocet is the name of a French bomb dropped on the Argentines during the albeit short war over the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas).
Later in the week we celebrated the New Year. My motivation for more suffering was low. I caught a cold and decided to sit out a short "window" that never actually materialized. My body was telling me that it needed rest and I listened. Listening to these sometimes subtle clues has become my focus over the last month.
Jens returned to Washington a couple weeks ago. Since he left it has been crazy down here. The hottest, driest period in recent El Chalten history allowed a slew of ground-breaking ascents as well rescues and tragedy. I didn't take any photos on the last tour. My intentions were to climb Bjorn and Chad. However, the day after depositing our cache at the Stanhard col, we were called upon to rescue a friend.
Everyone who climbs in the mountains knows that the moment will come when we have to help one of our own. We prepare for this by training our bodies to the extent of their genetic capability. We train our minds by taking wilderness medicine courses and keeping up on certifications as well as having a working knowledge of rescue systems. We also carry a medical kit with SOAP notes and the correct equipment in case the weather changes unexpectedly. If you are climbing with someone who hasn't checked all of the above, then don't go into the mountains with them until they do!
Nothing prepares us for losing a friend in the mountains. My condolences to all those who have.
The unprecedented good weather of December and January has come to an end. The weather was so warm that the glue (ice) which holds these mountains together melted and we witnessed mass wasting events throughout the range. The snow level has since dropped to the hills above town and ephemeral ice lines can be seen on Cerro Solo. This new weather pattern has allowed us to all regain balance.
In Argentina, the 29th of every month is the day of gnochi. Eating gnochi on this day is considered good luck. It is said that putting cash under the plate while eating will beget more money in the upcoming month.
Making gnochi is pretty simple. 1) Boil potatoes 2) Mash potatoes 3) Add flour 4) Roll into tubes and separate into balls. 5) Boil them until they float 6) Add sauce and eat!
Huge thanks to Rolo for capturing these rare moments on my camera!
Capa (the man who built this place out of recycled materials) enjoying the company of Troutman, Josh, and Maranda.
Making gnochi for 30 people is a production!
How much gnochi? Four hours worth...
A table of SENDBOTS!
The gnochi has provided us all with good luck. We have been lucky enough to get some world-class bouldering in. Sunny bouldering with friends... quite the opposite of suffering in the mountains...
Nice work Kate!!! The local bouldering competition was as fun to watch as it was to compete in. Kate took third in the women's division. The day started out rainy and everyone had their doubts. However, in typical El Chalten style, the sun came out and the temperature was perfect for bouldering.
We await the next window and meanwhile all enjoy the Dulce Vida!!!!