As CA-based rock climbers the North Pillar was the climb Brian and I had in mind when hoping to climb the legendary Fitz Roy. It is a beautiful, aesthetic and a difficult rock climb, which unfortunately the weather in the mountains did not allow us (or anyone else) to tackle last season (January-February). While staying in Chalten I heard the season labeled as "the worst in the last ten years," by those who frequent the range and it was usually more suited to climb ice, if anything at all....
By the late February of 2017, close to the end of the summer season, Fitz Roy had only about a dozen ascents via Supercanaleta, which was as rimed up as most of the peaks in the Torre group. Being flexible and jumping on every opportunity to climb helped us be one of the lucky teams that have topped out.
Our first attempt at an attempt was ended by a storm that cleared about 20 hours later than it was predicted to. Ooops. We did take advantage of half a day of clear weather and hiked out to the Marconi glacier, to check out the walls that are rarely seen. After that, without a rest day, we zombie-marched into the Torre Valley to climb Rubio y Azul (IV 5.11) on Medialuna. My friend Garrett was in town without a partner and we invited him to join us. Even though the winds whipped to 35 miles per hour and the intermittent snow flurries kept things uncertain to the spire-like summit, we had a great day and a taste of rough conditions. Right after hiking out we checked the forecast and saw an opportunity to go climbing. This time we decided to try something bigger and attempt the Fitz Roy during seemingly a day-long break in a storm. It was really a sh#t window with a slim chance of getting anything done, but none of us are pros that take 2 month vacations several times a year, so we were stoked to hike out and see if we get lucky. Sh#t conditions on the hike in guaranteed that we would be the only people on route.
After two back to back trips into the mountains and only a single day of rest in town I felt serious fatigue on the hike from town to the base of the route, but did well hiding it with frequent stops to snap photos, the mountains of South America are jaw-dropping. The high winds and precipitation persisted deep into the night and kept us in the tent for a few hours longer than we hoped, but we finally crossed the bergshrund at 6 am. Spindrifts pounded us from above while the updraft kicked us in the behind from below. The first 3,000 feet of the route is the athletic crux - breaking knee-deep trail and soloing short sections of blue ice as steep as 65 degrees. To do the route in a day as a team of three, without a "trail" that other climbers busted we had to be fit. And hope for the conditions to get better.
When we finished with the athletic crux, the difficulty of technical terrain kicked up. During a dry season, we would climb moderate cracks. Iced up and rimed over these become significantly harder. For California-based climbers sinking hand jams feel more natural compared to scratching the pick of the ice tool through rime, in search of a positive hook. Precise front pointing on edges as thin as a couple of millimeters doesn't usually feel secure, but facing challenges out of our element is what made the ascent one of the most memorable of our lives.
Midway up we were reminded of the seriousness of the place as we climbed past the dead body of "Frank." It was mostly covered with water ice. I thought to work as a nurse helped me develop resistance to facing death, but the scene made me feel sad and very mortal. The harsh mountains do not care about karma or future ambitions of their visitors. Unpredictable rockfall, a slip on moderate terrain, rappelling accident or simply being in the wrong place is enough to meet the maker. Knowing only a year ago the dead body of another competent alpinist, Chad Kellog, was cut out from a belay higher up was one of the reasons Brian and I were not considering the route notorious for objective danger before coming to Chalten.
The technical difficulties were usually at or below WI4/M4 and a few of the harder sections felt around M6. Not too hard while cragging on Campbird road but on a 5,000 foot route the true crux is having enough endurance to climb without time-burning clusters or unnecessary stops. Going during the marginal forecasted weather and being a team of three, we decided to carry the bivy kit in case we had to wait out a passing wind storm near the summit. The stove, fuel, single sleeping bag and the tent cover. The extra weight slowed us down a little, yet we climbed one of the longer routes on the mountain in a little over twelve hours!
By the time we had enough summit views, rappelled the 5,000 feet and ate our late dinner (or very early breakfast), it was light enough to not need the headlamp. Watching the sun rise from our campsite would be magical, but second sleepless night in a row knocked me on my back. When the sun woke us up at 11am, my feet were still buzzing from the front pointing marathon. But eager to take a shower, share the news with my mom and to celebrate our little victory with a giant steak, I put the boots on and begun hiking.
For those hoping to climb this route in the future, bring tat and leaver nuts/pins to beef up the anchors. The majority of the anchors on the way down looked like sh#t and I am sure people will start getting killed as old pins, bolts and tat start failing.
Thanks for AAC for creating the Live Your Dream grant and adding 450$ for Brian and I to go to Chalten. :) If you are a AAC member and want some extra motivation to go somewhere cool, apply for it!
List of climbs we did while out in South America with ratings given to routes based on variations climbed or conditions encountered:
Medialuna - Rubio y Azul (IV 5.11)
Fitz Roy - Supercanaleta (V M6 WI4)
Cerro Torre - West Face (V WI5 M6-7) - *to the base of the last pitch - epic bail in a whiteout. 29 hour day, Gnar, 2 hours of rest, hike all the way out to town in rain and 100 mph wind gusts. Full value.
Cerro Solo (dayhike)
Domo Blanco - Superdomo (III-IV WI4 M6)
Domo Blanco (from Piedra Negra) - North Ridge * bailed about an hour below the summit due to avalanche danger on one of the slopes
Aguja Standartd (from Chalten) - Exocet (WI4 M5, Waterfall Flow 4) - to the top of the second chimney pitch
Ag. Guilliamet (dayhike) - Amy Couloir (vertical shrund step and AI3 M4)
Ag. De L'S - Austriaca (III 5.10a)
Ag. Rafael Juarez (IV-V, 7a+ or 5.12a C1)
Photos from Fitz Roy and a few other routes:
S[reading ashes of my friend Ed Lau from one of the most scenic summits in Patagonia - Domo Blanco. With the line of Supercanaleta obvious in the tallest peak in the background. Thin prominent ice gully with rock wall above it to the top. Some of Ed's ashes made it there too. :)
One of the nicest days of the season...the drive in.
Chalten in morning glory
Woot Woot Woot!
Look who came to play!
Morning of the first "weather window." Over a foot of new snow. Was supposed to be a centimeter.
So we went here...not bad. But far from Piedra Negra.
Going back to the mountains
Garrett walking on the glacier
Mountains not super welcoming
Medialuna is the spire on the right, Cerro Torre up above
Fun climbing on Rubio y Azul (IV 5.11)
These cracks had a thin layer of clear waterice on the ice. Jamming was exciting.
Brian on top
Some guys climbing the route as we are rappeling.
Fitz is the big thing on the left.
A bit of rest on Fitz.
Some easier climbing higher up.
One would usually see Cerro Torre here.
Garett and fat red dot (me) on top.
Hike out to do some photography.
Fitz Roy is a cool peak, psyched we had enough energy, just enough ok weather and stupidity to try it. And thanks to my friends and partners, can't wish for a better team.