Monday, 21 January 2013

The mountain, and the man...

After a month spent reconnecting with my roots in Ontario, it was time for me to hit the proverbial road and make haste to southern Patagonia; El Chalten, Argentina to be exact, where summer, and a boyfriend, had been hiding out for the last 2 months.

From experience, I can confirm that there really is nothing quite like leaving Toronto Pearson International Airport in a snow storm, and arriving to Buenos Aires in mid-afternoon sun and a balmy 28 degrees! As is becoming my habit, I planned a days layover in Buenos Aires en-route to El Chalten so I could take in the sites, smells and sounds of the city I am falling in love with.

This quick visit was no less satisfying. After dropping my ridiculously overpacked/overweight bags at the Hostel, I took off on a stroll to find a cozy corner cafe in which to eat empanadas and watch the world go by; The Argentine way of course.  

The following morning, after rousing at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am, I was on a plane bound for southern Patagonia. Finally, I was getting closer to my destination, and my loved one. Colin is going to kill me, but for all those women reading my blog, I must share. When I stumbled up the stairs of our little Argentine apartment, and threw the door open, there waiting for me was not only mi amor, but also, the most lovely little bouquet of hand picked Patagonian flowers!! Seriously, no joke, that is a good man! 


These flowers were handpicked...in a Patagonian field...by *my* boyfriend! Seriously!

Enough of the mind numbing sappy talk. On to the details of the first 2 weeks of my 3 month stay. For those wondering, in El Chalten, we do not live in dirt bag squaller at all. For 3 years in a row Colin has proccurred a cute little apartment above the local grocery store, El Gringito. It's small, and with enough gear between us to furnish a medium sized gear shop in Vancouver, we must be resourceful. In fact, at one point, there was talk of hanging the spare bed from the rafters to make more room for our stuff.

Our casita.
And so life in El Chalten began. The first week, weather was predictably poor; However, poor weather in the mountains does not equal poor weather in the lowlands of town. There were ponies to feed, boulders to climb, friends to visit...

Colin feeding the ponies. Now that is adorable!

Getting a good look at the holds up high!

Colin chilling with friends in town while the foul weather swirls about Fitz Roy in the background.

Me, enjoying yet another day of high quality bouldering.

And, Colin doing the same.

And finally, after a week of leisure, the weather turned in the mountains. When this happens, El Chalten rouses from its lazy summer lounging and becomes a town full of crazed and frantic climbers. Each hurrying to ready themselves for the mountains, packing gear, buying food, gathering beta, and forming plans. Typically social dinners in town, the night before the good weather hits, are always entertaining; Everyone gorging themselves as they fuel their bodies, and questions are lobbed back and forth about various mountain approaches. It's a very infectious excitement.

It took a few checks of the weather forecast before Colin and I finally made our route decision. An exceptionally long good weather window meant, it was time for Fitz Roy, the largest mountain in the El Chalten massif, and one of many climbers dreams. We would climb Mate, Porro y Todo lo Demas on Fitz Roy's Goretta Pillar. In my mind, the Goretta Pillar, soaring 900 m above the Glacier Fitz Roy Norte before connecting with the final 300 m to Fitz Roy's summit, is one of the most beautiful mountain features I've ever seen. It screams to be rock climbed, and for those of us snow fearing, rock loving "alpinists", it is a match made in heaven.  In 2008 the route was opened to the top of the pillar by Patagonian legend, and friend, Rolando Garibotti, and the late Bean Bowers. I had the priviledge of sharing a meal with Bean on the Choktoi Glacier, in Pakistan, while climbing there in 2007. 

Several visits to Rolo and his partner Dorte Pietron, who made the first all female ascent of the route to the top of the pillar, provided enough beta that Colin and I were psyched and ready for our mission. 

With typically limited space, the bed becomes the gear "stagging" area as we pack for the route.
Alpine climbing is a game of strategy, and Colin, is naturally, the best strategist. Our plan was for Colin to lead the whole route. Yes, that's right, Colin led the WHOLE route! I would follow with a small pack and without jumars, while Colin hauled our heavy pack full of bivy gear and food. Typically a route of this length and difficulty would require the second to follow carrying a heavy pack and with jumars, but if I wasn't going to get the chance to lead any of the route, at the very least I should be able to enjoy free climbing the pitches on second. Additionally, Colin had already been to the summit of Fitz Roy 6 times so giving him the chance to make the climb a little more challenging was key.

Colin hiking into our bivy at Piedra Negra up the Rio Electrico Valley.

That's our mountain! The Goretta Pillar is the triangular peak just coming into the sunlight. Colin's photo.
The plan was to hike from our bivy at Piedra Negra to the base of the route, climb 3/4 of the way up the pillar to a cushy bivy terrace and sleep. On day 2 we hoped to climb the remainder of the way to the top of the pillar, bivy again, and on the third day climb the remaining 300 metres to Fitz Roy's summit, then descend to the Glacier via the Franco-Argentine rappels. 

But, in the mountains, plans are seldom executed as expected and it's necessary to be ready to change strategy at a moments notice. We left our bivy at 3:00 am on day 1 and huffed our loads over Paso Del Cuadrado and onto the Glacier Fitz Roy Norte. 

Colin hiking to Paso Del Cuadrado pre-dawn.
The early morning light revealed some amazing sights as we crossed the Glacier and began ascending the 1000 m of firm snow to the base of the pillar. For me, born and raised a flatlander, whose only snow travel experience until a mere 4 or 5 years ago was riding GT Snowracers, the 1000 m snow approach was the most difficult, mentally draining component of the whole climb. It is a common occurrence for me to be gripped with terror on mountain approaches, while Colin saunters up above me shouting out the odd reminder that I don't need to front point up a 35 degree slope! 

Colin crossing the Glacier Fitz Roy Norte with Aguja Pollone above.

Sarah, gripped per usual,  climbing the 1000 m of snow to the base of the pillar. Colin's photo.

Finally, almost to the "rock" climbing. Colin's photo.
We made it to the base of the pillar, but were somewhat miffed to discover that the last storm cycle had left Fitz's west side full of snow and ice. So, I put my newly learned skill of mixed climbing to good use as we made unavoidably slow progress up the initial pitches. 
What we had hoped to be rock climbing, turned out to be ice choked cracks and snowy ledges. Colin's photo.

Colin aiding and hacking his way up pitch after pitch of icy cracks. 

Finally, as the sun hit us, our route started to melt, and we began what would become a theme for the remainder of the route, climbing through waterfalls. As the west side of the mountain started to shed it's icy layers our progress improved and we even enjoyed some dry hand jamming. Colin did an amazing job, as always, of keeping the rope moving ever upward. It's a wonderful thing to watch the mind of a brilliant alpinist at work. Colin effortlessly transitioned from aiding with an ice axe and crampons on, to free climbing through water, to aiding with rock shoes on, and back again to hacking away at the cracks with an ice axe. 

Our first sunny belay, and the start of the "waterfall" climbing. Colin's photo.

Sarah following on beautiful granite. Colin's photo.

The master at work. Colin putting away the ice axe, and beginning to free climb up glorious cracks. 

Colin free climbing.
As I mentioned earlier, our progress was slowed by the icy/wet conditions we were encountering, so after climbing 2 hours into the dark, we finally settled on a tiny triangular piece of rock in which to build our first bivy. Unfortunately, we were still 5 pitches from our planned bivy on the terrace. 

Hey, those are kind of happy faces? Colin's photo.
Day 2 we climbed the rest of the way to the large terrace, 3/4 of the way up Fitz Roy's Goretta Pillar, and lounged for an hour on this flat oasis in an otherwise vertical world. After our momentary break, Colin was back at it again, moving the rope ever higher on the remaining steep pitches to the top of the pillar. We climbed/aided through several truly roaring waterfalls before again climbing into the darkness to complete the remaining low 5th class pitches to the top of the pillar. 

Colin lost in a sea of orange granite on the pitches above the terrace.


Sarah following with the terrace far below. Colin's photo.

Bivy number 2, same as the first, but a little bit colder, and whole lot hungrier. Colin's photo.

A bivy spot for 2?!
Day 3 we were running out of food,  and getting tired after a total of 6 hours of sleep over the last 3 nights. But we still had the remaining 300 m to the top of the mountain to climb, and a long, very long, descent to navigate. So, we roused ourselves for battle and amid bombs of ice chunks, and with El Chalten far below, Colin lead us through the final mixed pitches to the summit. 


Colin leading up one of the last technical pitches to the summit. The ice choked chimney to the left was the source of all that ice bombing!

Looking back down to the Goretta Pilar, with 2 climbers barely visible as they near the top of the Kearney-Knight.

I love this photo! Sarah following the final 300 metres to the summit,  with the top of the pillar, and our bivy spot, visible far below. Colin's photo.


Onto the low angled snow to the summit. Colin's photo.

At about 6:00 pm on Day 3 boyfriend and girlfriend shared a celebratory kiss on the summit, and then raced to complete the descent before darkness fell. As I waited for Colin to yell "off rappel" after completing the first of MANY raps down the mountain, I heard a holler from above. Two climbers yelled at me asking if they could share the rappels with Colin and I. As best I could make out, they had core shot one of their ropes, and descending the mountain with a single 60 metre rope would be slow and tedious to put it lightly. So, I yelled back up for them to jump on our ropes and join us as a party of 4.

Carlitos and Inaki, 2 young Argentine's, had just completed the second ascent of the legendary El Corazon on Fitz Roy's east face! It wasn't until sometime into the rappels that we learned Carlitos had taken a big leaders fall while climbing the route, and was in quite a lot of pain. And, it wasn't until we had all made it safely back to El Chalten that we learned, Carlitos had actually broken his ankle! Now that's a hardcore Alpinist!!

Us, with the Torres and the Patagonian icecap visible in the distance. 

A VERY steep rappel mid-way down the Franco-Argentine. Colin's photo.

The team back on the Glacier and saluting the mountain after about 12 hours of descending -- with a  short 2 hour nap on a cold ledge 3/4 of the way down. Colin's photo.

The mountain wouldn't let us escape quite so easily though. The slog across the Glacier was, just that, a slog through thigh deep isothermic snow. 
And that's how it ended. I had the privilege of sharing the summit of one of the most spectacular mountains I know, with my hero, otherwise known as, my boyfriend. It was a very special moment in my life, and apparently, my ascent marked the first female ascent of this route to the summit?! Go figure. But, more notably, following close on our heels the whole time were American women, Kate Rutherford, and Madeline Sorkin, who together made the fourth all-female ascent of Fitz Roy. Radical girls, congratulations!




















4 comments:

  1. Awesome achievement Sarah. Proud of you. I looked at that (unclimbed) ridge way back in 1972 and wondered if/when it would go. And now I feel I know it - thanks for taking an old man with you!
    Hugs, Rick Hudson

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  2. Thank you Rick!

    You know, once we returned to town, I told Colin all about how you and Phee had been down here many years before. I remembered you telling us about almost being blown off a horse! Let's plan a slideshow when we all return to the coast. It would be so awesome to see your slides from all over the world again -- namely some Pakistan slides and stories. I wanted to tell Colin about your trip to the Karakoram way back when, but couldn't remember the specifics of your objectives?

    In watermelon sugar.

    Sarah

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  3. Wow Sarah you are not only an awesome climber but also an awesome writer. You make climbing look so easy!!!! We are very proud of you and Colin. That was some feat - the first female ascent to this summit!! Amazing to say the least. Love mom and dad

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  4. Thanks Mom! Maybe Dad can join for some climbing down here next year! Hahahaha....

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