A cold day turns colder as the weak winter sun sinks below the Patagonian Icecap.
High on Poincenot the panorama is unreal, yet it barely gets a second glance as, absorbed in the complexities of retreat, we give our full attention to a fast descent in order to outrun the approaching storm. Although we've just made the first winter ascent of the 800m Whillans Route, a complex mixed line that spirals up the pillar, we are far from happy. Aside from the approaching weather, we know that it's often now, as the drama draws to a close that bad things happen and, with the storm imminent, there will be no time for cliffhangers.
Each abseil goes smoothly, the rope jamming only twice. On both occasions Jim jumars back up into the darkness to free it. The ground is steep, loose and complex. In the dark none of us are sure about the best line to take, aware that we don't have time for mistakes. When the storm hits retreat could be impossible. Without bivvy gear the only option is to keep on going and head diagonally down. Aiming for the ledge system that will lead us off the West Face. From there it's just a long snow ramp home. There will be no celebrations until we're all back in our snow hole.
One abseil merges into another.
We argue about where we are.
The ground is getting steeper, committing and unfamiliar.
On the move now for 20 hours, our brains are too frazzled to think straight. We continue blindly down. Nick coils the ropes and throws them into the night, Paul holds up the strands and I feed them through my Stitch plate. Jim stands ready to unclip my daisy chain.
"Okay Jim, I'm off."
Walking backwards, I feel more like a deep-sea diver than a climber as I step off the ledge and descend into the darkness. With feet barely touching the wall, I go slowly, anxious not to miss the next anchor. Sixty metres; alarm bells start ringing. I scratch backward~ and forwards across the wall searching for gear, crampons grating, the rope's stopper knots jammed tight against my belay plate. The numb beam of light from my headtorch creeps across the wall in front of me, searching for the next anchor. There has to be one.
The mercury has been absent from my cheap thermometer all day, yet suddenly I feel hot and panicky inside my thick winter layers, my heart is full of fear. Perhaps this will be the price we'll pay for trusting luck over judgment. Please let me be wrong. We're committed to this line of descent. I'm sure there's no way back. There has to be an anchor here somewhere and below it, in the darkness, the traverse line.
I swing back dejected, turn off my torch, and wait for my eyes to become accustomed to the darkness. I begin to make out the silhouette of the face below. I hear the wind whip up the wall below, heralding the arrival of the storm we've been expecting all day.
Whillans said the wind was like a giant slapping the rock with a wet towel, but in the blackness it sounds more like death rolling in.
With eyelids sticky with cold, I push away from the wall and look into the void. To my horror all I see beyond the flapping ends of rope is a vast dark wall, a curtain of granite, the glacier lapping at its base a thousand metres below. I hang alone in the dark, swaying in the wind. We might as well be retreating from the edge of the world.
I shout into the darkness that I'm coming back up. I know they can't hear me, but I shout anyway, my voice giving me strength as the words are blown over towards the Torres. I start jumaring, wrapping coils around my body as I go, paranoid the ends will be lost in the wind. Sixty metres of hell sees me strung out and screaming at my useless ascenders as they repeatedly slip on the icy rope. I'm not sure whether I'm jumaring the fixed side of the rope and I'm scared throughout that I'm about to plummet back down the wall.
Like most routes in Patagonia, the first pitch was a phantasm of old fixed ropes that smothered the ice like a bleached weed. Too cold for neve and not enough time to belay, we moved together, clipping into the ropes as they appeared, traversing out on to the route's long powder covered ramp. As we crossed Poincenot's massive East Face, we were all very much aware of the titanic wall that hung below us, the sound of seracs tumbling into its depths echoing up from the darkness. Dawn arrived in time to coldly illuminate the formidable ice chimney that Whillans climbed back in 1962. The big man always liked a fight, so in true 'Villain' style Jim bullied his way past with axe and crampon.
By the time we all arrived on the West Face, storm clouds were approaching like battle tanks across the icecap. Convinced we were out of time and with tempers frayed by disappointment, Paul decided to climb one more pitch just to see how hard the climbing was. I sat down and prayed it would be too hard. We'd already fought our way out of one storm on this trip and I'd gladly pass up this route if it meant avoiding another tussle with the Patagonian weather demons.
I'd almost convinced myself that I didn't really want to climb this mountain when Paul stumbled over a narrow ledge that led him on to the West Face. Before I knew what was happening, the rope was tight and I was racing after him, Nick and Jim close behind. The climbing was loose and engaging. Fun in double boots and thick gloves. Route finding was difficult, but we knew as long as we were climbing upwards we were heading in the right direction.
After battling a wide ice-filled crack we arrived at a narrow wind-blasted slot, through which we could see FitzRoy. I watched the clouds form up for the attack while Paul squeezed through and disappeared for several cold minutes. Patience was rewarded by a tug on the rope and I followed, traversing out above the blustery North Face. After squeezing through another slot and humping up a fin I ran out of mountain to climb. Paul sat astride the long thin summit, thumb up like Whillans.
I stood up shakily in the growing gusts and let out an uncharacteristic shout of relief, then looking around for the rap station suggested we get the f**k out of there.
The rapture long gone I drag myself back on to the ledge, a sweating and exhausted tangled mass of ropes. I don't have to say a word. It's clear we've gone too far, missed the ramp line and are now trapped on the wall below. I remove the ropes as the others form an escape committee. To the south I see the lights of Chalten. No doubt they can see us. If this was Chamonix by first light we'd be whisked away; but it isn't. This is Patagonia; for our friends in Chalten the flashes of distress may as well be coming from the moon.
I get to my feet and pass Paul the rope as he gears up for our escape attempt. Snow swirls around him as he ties in and grabs the rack off Jim and Nick. Above us there is just blank overhanging rock, to the left only the night. Our one chance lies in a line of cracks leading off rightwards around a corner. Paul waits for the wind to die, then placing his tools carefully, hooks his way out of sight.
Jim pays out the rope slowly, his head bowed, face hidden deep within his belay parka. We watch the orange and blue cord disappear, knowing if it stops before the end we're lost. For a moment we think it's just the wind, but then we hear it again. A shout. The rope comes tight and Jim begins to climb. Nick goes next. He looks back at me as he steps of the ledge. His face is a portrait of what Alpinism is really all about. The light catching his tired hollow eyes. There is no romance or joy here.
Alone on the ledge, shivering, I listen to the wind whispering through the holes in my helmet, my brain dark and empty. I visualize the two frozen corpses somewhere out there high on Cerro Torre, climbers like us who were unlucky and abseiled into early graves. What will I look like, sat here, mummified in ice? Nothing more than a lesson for future climbers.
Nick wakes me from my morbid slumber, shouting that he's safe. His voice sounds strong and confident. I stand and wait. I think back to all the stories we have told each other over the last few weeks. So much adversity overcome, so many epics survived. So many lessons learnt. In fits and starts the rope uncoils from my feet until it snakes tight and the waiting is almost over. I clap my hands and disco dance as I listen for the signal to follow.
We'll laugh about this one day.
I begin to warm up.
I hear Nick shout again. I walk to the edge, the rope tight. Through these two strands of twisted nylon I can tell Nick's keen to move. As I hook my axes on to the wail I watch the snowflakes fall through the beam of my headtorch, large and beautiful. It reminds me of Christmas. Up here the roads we may choose are simple. Heads or tails, life or death. Isn't this a precious gift we are given, our destiny distilled down into a simple puzzle of stone.
I step off the ledge and start climbing.
Andy Kirkpatrick is a well known mountaineer and writer. His book Psychovertical is available on his website: andy-kirkpatrick.com.
The book has received rave reviews, you can read some feedback on this UKC Forum Thread.
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