How can I describe the size of this place? How can I describe the dizzying gulfs of air below us as we claw our way towards the summit of Poincenot, glaciers splayed below like blue tongues cascading into tortured icefalls, and the Torre spires emerging from whorls of cloud across a valley too deep to comprehend? The sheer scale here is beyond anything I’ve seen, like the fabric sheets of the Bugaboos stretched across a much larger bedframe of terrain.
[story by Drew Thayer, senior correspondent to The Climbing Zine]
[cover photo by Seth Adams]
After a mile-long glacier traverse, five hundred meters of snow climbing and an intricate ice chimney we spend the afternoon picking our way up the massive upper flank of Poincenot, probing the folds of the mountain for the path of least resistance to the top. As only Neale has rock shoes, we have to find a path that goes at 5.9 or less for us to follow. The wind picks up and streamers of cloud begin coursing overhead, signaling that our ventanilla, “little window” of weather will not last as long as we hoped. Eventually we spot a third class ramp that leads to a 20 meter corner of technical rock right below a notch between two summits. The best option? We roll the dice and scramble the ramp. Neale climbs the corner in rock shoes as an airborne litter of rime and snow assails our faces, carried over the crest of the peak by the wind. Seth and I follow the pitch in our mountain boots, scrapping up the delicate footholds and pawing our feet uselessly at the handcrack. Somehow we both free climb high enough to grab the next cam. It’s a game of only one rule: upward progress. It’s ugly, but I learn I can climb 5.10 with these massive boots I’ve only used for climbing ice; not the first or last new thing I will learn here in Patagonia.
I crawl up the final blocks to the notch and am rendered breathless, both figuratively by the view of Fitz Roy streaming plumes of fresh wind-born cloud, and literally, as the wind’s vacuum sucks the air from my throat. It is all I can do to sit and gaze at the mighty peak getting ravaged by the gale, the air above me aloft with flecks of ice and snow. Seth and Neale join and we take stock; to the right a thin fingercrack cuts a steep wall, to the left a gentle slabs runs up to a crack filled with ice. I know I can climb the slab, but can I balance there, run out, long enough to chip out a gear placement in the raucous wind? And keep going up the slab, gambling that my friction will overcome the gusts?
It’s my first mission in Patagonia, my first weather window after only three days in this country, and I feel lucky enough to make it this high up a mountain. Neale and Seth agree; we admire the view of Fitz another minute, high-five our high point, and turn around to contemplate the long descent.
“…Naught without prudence, for the carelessness of a single step can ruin the happiness of a lifetime.”
“In my fingertips I hold the life of a man.”
The words of climbing literature throb in my head as I remove my gloves to downclimb a 4th class step, searching for another rappel anchor while Neale and Seth pull the ropes. Beneath my feet lies a near-vertical drop over one thousand meters to the glacier. Up here, the consequences of a mistake are very clear.
How do you descend from a five hundred meter spire, moving safely through vertical terrain and objective hazards? Inside, a voice called ego pleads without reason to be out of the danger zone, to be safe on flat ground. In a glance we see this silent plea in each other’s eyes; we don’t dare voice it. In this austere world of rock, wind, and vertical sky, where a single mistake can kill you, when the child inside you yearns for nothing but safety, how do you make it down?
With patience. Without ego, without panic. Without fear? A little much to ask for this guy, for us mere mortals. At moments of doubt, staring down unfathomable distances of rough terrain, I feel a swell of terror rising in my chest. But the wave must not break. As alpinists, we make that commitment before we leave the ground. I acknowledge the wave, relax into its motion and let it pass.
“If it weren’t for climbing we’d all be surfers,” the sage said. Maybe we still are.
So how do you descend from a five hundred meter spire? Calmly, a compilation of small steps, executed with precision. One. Two. Ten Thousand.
That’s how we stumbled into camp watching the sun rise the second time that day, 26 hours later. Tired, thirsty, happy to sit down, with big grins on our exhausted faces.