Reaching the summit

•January 21, 2012 • 1 Comment

We knew there was a five day weather window approaching. We had gone back to Puerto Natales to rest, but returned still feeling drained. We got to the Japanese camp and started to settle back in and prepare our climbing bags. At about this time the conversation went cold and died off, understandable, we both had a lot playing on our minds. The midday sun was draining and that with carrying the extra weight made us decide to take a day of rest before the next leg of the venture, neither of us felt we had it in us. We would instead bring the bags to our first stash, and make our attempt the following day. This meant we would have to carry our full bags up the1500 meter scramble, leading to the base of the route.

Tuesday night after delivering our bags we rested, and both silently contemplated the route, my nerves were playing havoc with my stomach. We ate a huge meal full of carbs and protein, the goodness of the meal compensated for the amount of sugar we would eat en-route. We finished the meal, made our final preparations, and went to bed at eight; we would both need as much sleep as possible, before getting up at 01:00.

I lay in my tent thoughts of everyone close to me, family and friends. I questioned what I was doing, especially after having made it half way up the route, and coming very close to not making it down again. I went up the last time completely underestimating the mountain, and overestimating, my own understanding of the mountains. I’d learnt a hard lesson, it is not I who decides whether I get to the summit, but a combination of the mountain, the weather and our ability to climb safely.

At 01:00 my alarm went off and I got ready, I had slept for three hours. I walked by James tent, at first I saw no light, but then the tent lit up and I heard James moving around. For that second before the light went on I had feared he had changed his mind, and decided against going up.

I went to the shack and prepared the porridge, throwing in some honey and cinnamon to make it bearable. Porridge is an essential start to the day when heading out on an excursion such as ours, its slow release, giving us the energy to see us through the morning.

We left camp at 01:20, we were on our way into the unknown, not fully knowing the obstacles the weather or the mountain would put before us on this attempt.  My only certainty was in our ability to climb as safely as possible and our understanding that we would need to communicate at all times. This time round I had the right attitude, and a better understanding of my reasons for doing the climb.

We walked in silence to where we had stashed our gear; the weather was as good as the weather forecast had promised. It was warm, and most importantly there was not a drop of wind. If the wind is too strong we do not continue the wind makes it very difficult to descend the mountain. It is said that, with the winds in the valley, it is possible for the rope, when rappelling, to be whipped back up standing vertical on end.  

Walking at this time of the night is always beautiful, whether in a city or any other place. I do not believe there is such a thing as absolute silence, there is always your own thoughts, which in a place like this seem amplified. In the glaciated valley we were walking through, I could hear more than my own thoughts. The wind generally, but not now, but always behind everything else is the sound of the glacial movement, as whole rock faces drop, creating thunderous sounds, which echo around the valley.

We made our way to the stash, unknowingly passing our new friends bivouac; they must have been still sleeping. There were two other teams making an attempt on the south and north towers. It was a massive lift to our spirits, knowing there were others in the valley. We would be limited in the help we could provide for each other, but it was reassuring none the less. We continued on, collected our bags, and set straight off. We had1500 metersof scrambling up and over broken rock before we made it to the point where we would tie onto the ropes. It took us an hour and a half to reach the point where we were to start the more technical climbing. From there we put on our harnesses and climbing shoes, we also took a bit of a break, enjoyed the views, and ate some food and re – hydrated. Perhaps we were simply putting off the inevitable; it was needed all the same.

At 05:00 we took off for the base of the route, now “soloing” the more technical terrain. Due to the heat over the last few days the snow on the central tower had begun to melt, and water was now pouring down in places we would have to pass, we had to be careful, we were climbing over very exposed terrain. We reached the col, the area between the north and central towers. There was still no sign of our friends; we should have seen them by now. There were some very dark clouds on the horizon, approaching from the Dickson glacier, usually the direction the bad weather came from. Did our friends know something about the forthcoming weather that we did not, we decided to continue. The exposure caused by the 2500ft drop onto the east side is on a massive scale, as I said before this is where we felt the full force of the wind, It sounded to us like a jet engine roaring next to our ears.

James would lead the first five sections, it would be faster, he was already familiar from the first attempt, and it would speed things up and give us a needed advantage. It also meant that I would avoid the section I had fallen on. I would take the crux sections, a dihedral of about 150 –200 meters. We uncoiled the ropes and tied on, even without the wind it was still cold, the rock had not warmed yet, I was again wearing all the layers I had worn on the first attempt.

James took off climbing, the psychology of the climbing was different this time, until we had passed the area of the fall, we would feel more anxious than normal. At any time, we can descend, but we continue to go on. It’s strange how we choose to challenge ourselves, how we attempt to feel the full impact of life. Without any doubt there are easier ways, but it’s addictive, and what we get from achieving an objective such as this, is intensive.

James was nervous, as was I; I could hear it in the way he was climbing. He went about it without complaint, and climbed bravely, better him then me. James moved through the fall section, there was no problem there, it was not difficult climbing. I climbed up to him and looked around at the area I had fallen, it was in the past, and it had helped me develop my understanding of the mountains, an extreme way to learn, never again if I can help it. We laughed, we had past an obstacle, and the tension between us evaporated. We now had the small matter of the crux section to tackle, the technically difficult section of the route.

I took the gear from James and set off, using a method of climbing called “French free”, its where we climb using our hands and pull on the gear only when necessary. It helps with some of the more technically demanding climbing; it’s about moving as fast as you can. I climbed up the corner cracks and reached the roof, where there were three pitons I could use to pull through this section. While getting through the roof and reaching around the lip, I grabbed a good solid piece of rock, I could hear James shouting encouragement, I was through, than I lost my grasp of the rock and fell through the air. The force of my weight ripped the piton from the roof. I tried a different strategy and got through. James climbed to me, with more difficulty, negotiating the leaders choice of route is not always straight forward for the second climber. Some time before this we saw the north tower team making their way up the Monzino route; they took only a few hours to get to the summit. We shouted encouragement as they summated. We enjoyed watching them get there reward.

We made it to the base of the final crux section. James had taken over because I had run out of gear on the ramp a few meters below the ledge, there was some unsettling climbing going through that section. At one stage James had clipped into an old wedge with wire sticking out of it, crazy stuff, probably had been there since the first ascent, fifty years previously.

We were looking at the final part of the crux, it was streaming with water. We were still in the shade, but at the top, we could see the sun, that was where we wanted to be. I was leading again and set off. It would have been interesting to climb this crux free, purely using my hands. At home it would have been hard but achievable. I pulled through the last section, my hands felt the sun for the first time, what an incredible feeling. James moved up through the crux section at a good speed. We drank some much needed water, we figured we could fill up our bottles with melting snow later on. All the difficult technical climbing was over, we now enjoyed some easy free climbing in the sun. We figured we were going slowly, and that we might have to sleep at the bivouac site, should we get to the top too late. It was not something either of us wanted, but you do what you have to, better than rappelling in the dark. We got to the bivouac site, which lay on a big ledge, and enjoyed the sun and the view for a while, taking the time to fill the bottles with water. We took some time to study the topography map to see which way would lead us to the top, from here on It said it would be easy climbing, so we decided to “simul” climb, meaning we would rope up and move together, placing gear between us. If either of us fell, the weight of the other would tension the rope against the gear placement. James took the lead and set off, straight away we ran into some sketchy climbing. The water running from the top had frozen in sections making the climbing more technical than expected. We continued on, taking it slowly. James set up an anchor and belayed me up the final part of the pitch. At this point it was confusing as to which way we should take either right or left seemed possible, I decided to go right.

I took the equipment from James and “racked up” the summit seemed to be just above us. The climbing was exposed and wet in parts but not all that difficult, I pushed on. The rock eased off and I got to a fixed anchor. I shouted to James that I was safe, and he climbed up to me; it was exciting to think we were close. I untied and went to have a look, I shouted to James that we had made it, I was convinced. I waited and we moved up together to the top, what a feeling, no further to go, we were tired. We reached the summit, and our hearts sank, straight across from us, there was another pinnacle, slightly higher. We moved across the rock, and made for the top, again deceived, the second pinnacle obscuring our view of the actual summit. It seemed really far, we were beaten down with tiredness; the rappel down would take some time. We roped up again and climbed some exposed rock; we got to the col between the two pinnacles and looked at our options. There was only one way up, again it was wet, and did not look as if there was much protection. James took off up the route, were we crazy, to have come so far and to now take a bad fall, would leave us in a very serious situation. I kept my eye on James watching his movements, shouting encouragement. James got to the top of the route and continued on, shouting back to me that he had reached the top, there would be no more surprises. We moved up, it was narrow and just enough space for the two of us. It’s strange when we got to the summit, it’s difficult to let ourselves celebrate too much. On this occasion, at 17:00 on Wednesday 14th of December, we allowed ourselves a small celebration. It was the hardest peak either of us had ever achieved getting to. We gave ourselves twenty minutes to marvel at the views up there, we also communicated with our friends on the south tower. We were somewhat confused as to what they were doing, it looked like they were sun bathing, we envied their relaxed approach to the climbing.  

On a clear day from the summit of the towers, it is usually possible to see “Fitzroy” the highest peak in Patagonia, a monster at 3,405 vertical meters, today we had no view of it. We did see two condors flying on the airwaves, effortlessly, gliding. I figured they were laughing at our flightless efforts getting to the top and back down again.

We started to make our way down the peak, 800 meters of rappelling. This is where we really needed to focus, and check each other. Because of our physical and mental state, mistakes could be made. When one pulls the rope, while rappelling, there is always a chance that the rope can snagged in the cracks, or around a flake. There is a system and it needs to be followed meticulously, we would need to work together at all times. It’s a monotonous process, but we could not relax until we pulled the rope for the last time.

The weather was still in our favor, there was barely an ounce of wind, and we descended to the col, without any trouble. It was not until the last pull that the rope snagged, three meters up the crack, better there then higher up, and having to cut the rope, I climbed up and released the rope. We rappelled the final 100 meters down through the snow gulley, and back to the stash, we relaxed. We still had to get to the camp, but there was not much to worry about.

We took everything down with us, it was 22:00.  Walking home to the camp was tough, but comforting. I thought of all my family and friends, but what was most on my mind was good food, in particular the BBQ pork sandwich I had had back in town. After achieving the summit and successfully getting back down, everything no matter how simple seems incredibly satisfying. We passed our friends bivouac, and said a quick hello. We moved on, and arrived back in camp at 00:40, almost 24 hrs after we had left. We had climbed it in an alpine style, meaning in one push from camp to camp, without stopping for long.

The next morning we woke up ravenous, we set up everything on the river beach, no worries about rationing the food any longer; we were going to head back to town. Our friends from the south tower arrived, they had been on the go for thirty hours, and were wired with tiredness. We all brought out our food, and enjoyed a feast and exchanging stories.

When we had reached the summit, both James and I had both been talking about how it would be the last time we would go out and climb something that big. Now that we were rested and eating well, we were not so sure. We were enjoying the company of others who had been through, and who had achieved and survived something of a similar nature to our own journey. We both agreed we had room for more.

Torres del Paine, Chilean, Patagonia

•December 12, 2011 • 6 Comments

Torres del Paine, Chilean, Patagonia

On the 29th November after one year of planning, my friend James Gernon and I left for Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia. We set out from Dublin at five in the morning, and after thirty six hours of travelling, which included, two taxis, and three planes, we arrived in Puerto Natales.

The town itself resembles a frontier town, from the old wild west. The buildings look as if they have been thrown up with corrugated sheets and old drift wood. There are feral dogs and wild looking people roaming the streets. The majority of people in the town work as guides for those making the journey into the park. The merchants surviving on the business brought in by tourism, which had become the main trade since the old one died out. From 1913 for 70 years, the towns’ economy and indeed the wider area relied heavily on the Puerto Bories slaughter house and processing plant, it was the largest in Patagonia. They looked after the processing and shipping of the lamb and mutton brought in from all over Patagonia.

We arrived in town, heavy with tiredness, and weighed down with luggage. We found a hostel called Shekana, owned by a man of the same name. It was small and comfortable all for 5000 pesos, which included breakfast. We enjoyed the hospitality and the warmth of the place before setting out to a more hostile dwelling, which would be our home for a month or more.

The following day we bought all our food enough to do us for a month while we siege the central tower and our objective, the Bonnington/Whillians route. There are three peaks, the central peak which has an altitude of 2800 metres, the north peak and the highest the south, which is 2900 metres. The route is 900 metres of vertical climbing, the crux is E4/5 or 5.11d, with an alpine grade of ED1. For those unfamiliar with climbing  the alpine grade goes to ED4, as far as I know.  Whatever the grade, it will be the hardest climbing, either of us have ever done.

James has fifteen years experience climbing for my six, I have only spent three short seasons climbing in an alpine environment,  making James the natural leader while on route. When we started out I had not fully accepted or understood how essential it would be for me to accept this. In fact due to my lack of experience and my stubbornness, I would later make a major mistake which would bring both of us as close to death as either of us were comfortable with.

On the 2nd of December at 07:30, we caught the bus to the park, a two and a half hour journey. We arrived at the Rangers Office and gave in our “difrol papers” essential for climbing in the mountain area bordering  Argentina. Old animosity between the two South American countries still nurses a sense of deep paranoia. We spent an hour with the head ranger, it all went smoothly and we caught our next bus to Hosteria Las Torres, a really nice place with camping spots attached placed at the beginning of the hike into Silence Valley  which leads to the towers. The hotel is owned by a Croatian immigrant family who a couple of generations ago bought enormous tracts of land which go half way up the valley, either by great foresight or incredibly good luck, probably the latter.

We got off the bus, and with forty kilos each, we debated how to make the 14 km hike to the Japanese camp, as easy as possible. There was no getting around it, it would be hard no matter what we decided. We initially attempt hanging all the bags of food and a rucksack on a long thick branch which we tried to carry between us, no chance, we got 15ft and gave up. We were going to have to do the hike twice, over a two days period.

By 16:00 the following day we arrived at our destination we were shattered, the terrain had been difficult, I for one drifted in and out of a dream state, which helped me get through the slog. The scenery was incredible, as you can imagine, the majority of the valley, was populated by a very old forest. The ground below the trees was covered in vibrant green vegetation, resembling cilantro. The leaves on the trees, were unusually small for trees this big and again a vibrant green. The sun was out in strength and sent a wonderful light through the branches, creating incredible shadows which danced around us. It sounds idyllic, but this is what I saw perhaps partly due to the exhaustion or delirium, the heat was intense.

We made ourselves a huge meal and tried to regain some energy back, we also rested. There was a river flowing from the glacier which ran beside us and provided us with water, really clean and sweet tasting. We made plans to head up the valley the following day to see the towers and get our climbing equipment closer, we slept soundly that night.

The following morning we made our way up the valley, after a steep climb of twenty minutes we emerged out of the forest, it plateaux’s into the glaciated part of the valley and stayed at an easy gradient until the towers came into view. Since leaving Puerto Natales  the landscape has been the most dramatically diverse, and beautiful I have ever seen. When we were walking to the towers  the mountains were beyond imagination. The peaks in Torres del Paine are separate to the Andean mountain chain. The area used to be marshland until a granite bubble rose up and pushed the marsh, 5km into the air and 12km out. Over time the old marsh eroded away, and the granite was left, in part forming what are now the three towers and a number of large granite peaks with immense walls in the Silence and French valleys. There are still a number of peaks, which are either completely black charcoal or form a large crust on top of the granite. It is an awesome sight to behold.

When the angle of the valley suddenly changed our line of sight lead directly up towards the towers following long spine like rock slopes, and snow gulley’s, we stopped and admired what we had travelled so far to climb. Nothing needed to be said they were breath-taking, these fiery orange granite towers.
We stashed our equipment in one of the caves we found and made a wall around it  to protect it from the winds which would tear it to shreds, given the opportunity.

The weather was supposed to be good the following day, we decided we would try to climb the north tower by way of a route called “Taller del Sol”, a shorter and less committing route at 500 – 600 mt. We got up that morning at 02:00 and made our way to the base of the climb, it took us five hours and before we had even tied into ropes we had scrambled up 1500 metres of broken rock and slabs. The pressure dropped on the barometer watch, and we saw a blizzard blowing across the largest ice mass I have ever seen, the 350 km long Dickonson glacier. There were dark clouds building up, we postponed climbing, we had time enough.

The following day we were told that we should make plans to climb the next morning, there was a window of two days of good weather  after that, it was forecasted to change. We decided to climb our objective the central tower. We both felt refreshed and strong  although we were both slightly nervous. The alpine climbing in Patagonia, brings with it far more risks than the French alps. For one, there is no rescue service of any kind you’re on your own if an accident occurs. On top of that we were the only two climbers in the valley. The weather can change dramatically, and even on a clear day  the winds can be too strong to abseil in, blowing the ropes in different directions and even, we had been told, sending them back up to us vertically. There are a lot of decisions to be made before making a push for the summit.

We ate a big meal of carbohydrates and protein, and went to bed. I did not sleep a wink until we got up at 01:00 my mind was racing with activity. We made a big pot of porridge and set out. We moved much faster than before and made it to the base of the climb where our gear, which we had stashed after our first attempt, in 2 hrs 50min, taking 2hrs off our previous climb to this point.
We were at the col, where the north and central join, by 04:30. The col is the only place where the wind can get through and it sounds like a jet engine. We put on all our layers to keep the cold off, the rock was waxy and had no friction, our hands going numb as soon as we touched it.

James was going to take the first three sections out of the twenty five to the top. It was difficult climbing due to the cold and our nerves were rattled because of the exposure and the nature of the place, I for one was terrified. We moved through the first three sections, James climbed smoothly using the gear to get through some sections, the cold nipping at him. It’s different been the second, the psychological side of climbing is not as tough.

It was my turn to take over lead, and I felt confident, although still getting to grips with the lack of friction and the cold. I traversed out left, and then straight up to the anchor point where I looked at the three pegs and set up the anchor. I brought James up and while three metres below me he pointed out that we were off route I should have gone right from where he was now standing. He down climbed and traversed to the right, clipping into two pegs. While I was watching him I was straining to see him until I had to try and turn directly around. Everything changed in that moment, in a split second I heard a ping, in the same second I was crashing down a vertical cliff, than I stopped falling. I heard James calling my name, I was in a lot of pain but I was alive. I got myself up and checked my body nothing broken but there was a lot of blood coming from my right wrist. I told James I was not hurt badly.

I had made a potentially fatal  mistake, which could have resulted in both of us losing our lives. All three pitons  used for the anchor, had came out from the rock due to the stress of  my body weight, I had looked at the pitons but I had not tested them or even backed them up. It was something which any climber would know to check including myself, I had done it hundreds of times.  Due to James quick reaction, he wrapped the rope around his hand and slung it around a flake. He did this when he heard the pitons coming out and by this action had prevented me from falling another 40 metres and pulling him off, which would have had us both hanging in the air held by the two pitons clipped on by James. I had during the fall held onto the belay rope which helped somewhat, preventing me from falling the rest of the distance.

The worst that had happened was a couple of scratches, some bruises, my confidence shot and I was in shock. I climbed up to James, It’s difficult to explain the emotions we were both going through .

The nature of  the place, the environment, the cold, these could have all been reasons why I overlooked checking the pitons. In hindsight the reality is that due to foolish pride, not listening and my determination to go straight up and not look around, I nearly killed myself and worst than that, I nearly killed someone else.

We naturally decided to bail, I was a danger to both of us with my foolish attitude. My climbing ability is good, but out here there is so much more needed. I did not have the experience, James did, and I should have listened to him.

We abseiled down and got back to safe ground. It was a relief to get down, I would imagine more so for James. We sat in silent reflection, we had both come closer to death and in a more extreme way than I would have liked. James read me the rights, although he in his usual fashion kept a level head, I said nothing. When he finished we embraced each other, we had survived. We did not discuss whether we would continue our pursuit of the tower until later, I was sure it was out of the question for me, I knew James did not trust me, I did not blame him. We made our way down bringing everything with us. I did not want in that moment to return I scared myself and I was lucky.  I love life and the many people who are close to me. The return to camp was difficult  I was injured, mind and body.

By the time we got back to camp, it was pretty much agreed, we would look into returning home, I did not feel I had it in me to climb up there again and James, as I knew well did not want to climb with me. We ate food, re-hydrated and went to sleep at 17:00 that evening. We slept until 08:00 the following day, I was the first one up and I contemplated what had happened.

I approached James tent, I asked him to give me a moment to explain my thoughts. First of all, I told him I recognized the mistake I had made, which without any doubt was a major one. I said I had learnt a big lesson, which had been at almost too high a cost. I never wanted to put myself or anyone else in that position again. I suggested that we could still do it. I also suggested that if we were to go back up, we should first take a few days to re-cooperate in town. I knew James wanted to climb the central, and I was sincere in what I had said. This was not just a matter of pride , I was confident we could do the route properly, safely and for the right reasons this time. James accepted, we packed a light bag each and ran the trail back to the hotel to catch the bus into Puerto Natales. I fully intended spending my time in the town getting drunk, eating good food and celebrating life, with a friend.

Tomorrow morning we are going back into the park to make a second attempt. The weather is forecasted to be in our favour, Tuesday onwards. I feel something has changed in me, with regards to climbing in this environment and perhaps climbing in general. I am 100% certain we are going back in for the right reasons.

Patagonia

•December 11, 2011 • 7 Comments

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn`t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.   – Mark Twain