The holiday season in El Chalten is a remarkable fiesta, flowing from Christmas Eve though to the new year. It peaks around 4 in the morning on the 1st when the local band, Siete Venas, takes the stage and rocks until sunrise. Thankfully, the weather in the mountains was poor and I made it to the Christmas Eve feast, a thirty person pot-luck style dinner not to be missed. When Mikey Schaefer told me he had a climbing idea for the New Year, I once again resigned myself to missing the legendary fiesta. I couldn't have known what we were getting into...
So, after sleeping all night and a good part of the day, Mikey, Joel, and I hiked into Nipo Nino camp in the Torre Valley on the New Year. Conditions were not optimal. It was snowing horizontally when we crossed onto the glacier, but abated by the time we reached Nipo. Settling in before the climb is always tricky, the mind runs over the possibly events. I got little sleep, and we set out at 5AM in the gathering dawn.
Donning crampons, we made good speed and roped up onto the upper glacier a few hours later. The setting was incredible. Fitz Roy and its satellite pinnacles towered over one side of the valley, the Torres dominated the other, basking in alpenglow. The views of our new route only got better and our spirits were high. The snow got deeper as we reached the bergschrund, a few waist high spots. The 'schrund threatened to swallow us as we balanced on a steep snow slope and Mikey led off.
The first two leads stretched our 60 meter rope to it's limit, and we simul-climbed beautiful alpine ice to reach nice ledges. Joel took over and crossed a steep snow gully to the next section of ice. Another stretcher pitch of amazing alpine ice, a theme materialized and the route was taking shape. Mikey and I climbed near each other smiling and pretty struck by what was happening at the moment.
From below, we couldn't see the next part of the climb. Now, the big black dike stared us down, piercing the granite, feeding the ice. Joel put together an impressive line, taking a half meter runnel of ice to the right of the dike. The runnel took a turn right, then terminated at a snow ledge. After down-climbing a bit of steep snow, splitter granite cracks branched out. The climbing was stunning! Hooking with tools, a hand jam here, high stepping into rock pods, then pulling onto an exposed belay stance. The next pitch traversed dead left on steep mixed ground for 10 meters. With sparse protection, the little runnel appeared again to comfort us. I barely followed this bit clean, and asked Joel just how he did it when I reached the anchor. He was in the zone! Finishing the middle section of the climb, we relaxed on the little col before traversing into the final ice flow. We could now see the last pitches up close, smiles cracked our faces.
"You still psyched man?" Mikey asked Joel.
The ice master was in full form.
After another long moderate ice pitch, Joel made a belay under the steepness. He set off and after 60 meters, we began climbing. I was glad when Joel found an anchor and put us on belay. Sustained water ice burned my calves, I kicked my foot sideways to rest whenever possible. I've never seen waterfall ice form like that in Patagonia. I felt like I was back in the South Fork of Cody, Wyoming. A glance over my shoulder at Fitz Roy brought me back to the present. The ice entered a chimney, and the last few meters to the belay was strange climbing, right foot stemmed onto the main flow, left foot and both tools deep in the ice runnel. The belay was semi-haning and incredibly uncomfortable. Locking my ankles, my feet braced the ice flow, while my butt melted the cold snowy mini-ledge. Climbing with three has its advantages, and now Mikey and I could suffer together.
Joel left the little cave launching onto vertical ice immediately. He moved up and right to more featured ice, climbing steadily and resting to place screws. It was an impressive lead, and toward the top, the rope snaked out of my hands quickly.
"He must be getting close" Mikey hoped.
"OFF BELAY!" The words floated down to us.
We could start moving, warming up and getting ready for this monster pitch.
The ice was harder, denser with less air. It was no longer one-swing hero conditions. I tried to hook as much as I could, but falling onto the 8.5mm cord was not a happy thought. I had to swing more and more and my arms were failing. Breathing deep and resting straight-armed on good picks got me through it. The ice rolled over and I got my feet under me. Magically here the ice improved and I raced the final stretch to the belay, totally spent.
That was the last hard climbing. We ate some food, and continued to the summit a few hundred meters above on compact, wind-blow snow. The route had been pretty protected from the wind, but now we experienced its full force. The Continental Ice Cap laid below us, The Torres stretched their icy fingers. Fitz Roy glowed in the setting sun, beyond it Lago Viedma, and the pampas. It was 9PM. Taking in the view, we snapped a summit shot and got out of there.
As darkness came, we flicked on headlamps, added clothing and rappelled. Mikey is a true Jedi when it comes to getting off mountains. Joel and I watched him work, taking in the little tricks he's honed over years of climbing. I would go last, pulling the anchor backups. Being alone on the mountain was a strange feeling. I shut off my light and took in the darkness, embracing the vulnerability. Exhaustion raked my body. I reminded myself to "keep it tight!" and double-checked the safety system.
Finally, the last rappel took us over the bergschrund. We pulled the ropes and wallowed back down to flat ground. Seeing lights on Exocet, we imagined our friends Blake and Troutman were sending. We brewed hot water and ate the last of our food before stumbling back to camp as the sun lit the skies. I had just a wink of sleep before packing up and heading back to town. A huge feast and 12 hours of sleep revived me, somewhat. My legs were completely worked from all the crampon time, but my mind was at ease at full of joy.
A few days later, we threw a huge party at La Lucinda with all our friends. The local ice cream shop is stuff of legend in El Chalten. Domo Blanco; it's named after the mountain we climbed. When Mikey asked me near the end of the route if I knew all the flavors, I recited a few that came to mind.
"There's Nochialatto, Dulce Coco, Frutas del Bosque, and Super Domo!"
We celebrated with 5 kilos of Super Domo to commemorate this amazing climb, it wasn't hard to finish it all!
FA on Cerro Domo Blanco
Grade V 600m WI5 M6
Mikey Schaefer, Joel and Neil Kauffman
Mikey and Joel hiking in the forest
Dawn below Fitz Roy
Bifida and the Torres
Domo Blanco is the peak on the left, Super Domo slashes across the face
The final ice pitches can be seen in the upper right of the face
The final ice pitches can be seen in the upper right of the face
Big blocks on the glacier below Cerro Pollone
Getting psyched to start climbing!
Mikey crossing the 'schrund
Mikey tackles the first pitch
The 'schrund belay
Joel taking off
Mikey leading pitch 2
Taking in the full moment
Mikey finding the little runnel near the black dike
Climbing through the first mixed bit
Mikey on the mixed traverse
The final ice flow!
Joel in the thick of it
Wind-blown snow near the top
The Torre Group from the summit of Domo Blanco
Heading down around 9PM
The shadow of Cerro Torre on Fitz Roy
Monkeys and mountains
Back at Nipo Nino
Celebrating with Scott Bennett during the Super Domo Party
Make it special!