Austrian alpinist Markus Pucher recently caught our attention with two unsuccessful but nonetheless remarkable winter solo attempts on Cerro Torre and Cerro Fitz Roy in Patagonia, in addition to making the first winter solo ascent of Cerro Pollone.
A connoisseur of the Patagonian mountains, Markus has history in the range with multiple solo ascents, including a first free solo ascent of Cerro Torre in both 2013 and 2014 via the Ragni route (M4 90°, 600m) - the first time succeeding in just 3 hours 15 minutes, the second time summiting despite a white-out storm - described by Patagonia Vertical author Rolando Garibotti as 'one the the most harrowing ascents in Patagonian climbing history.' Markus also attempted a winter solo of Cerro Torre last season, which saw him retreat just over 300m below the summit.
In the face of extremely low temperatures and inclement conditions, winter soloing in Patagonia is not to be taken lightly. The unappealing winter environment - for roped teams as much as for soloists - results in limited company and a need to be self-sufficient and incredibly bold. Patagonia's notorious high winds and stormy winter conditions force gutsy climbers to carry increased supplies, a more robust shelter and heavier clothing - all the while making upward progress even more challenging in the range's winter coat of thick snow.
Markus is 40 years old and lives in Gendorf, Austria. He works as a mountain guide and began climbing at the age of 14 in the mountains surrounding his home in the Malta valley.
To find out more about this enigmatic figure of Patagonian mountaineering, we sent Markus some questions...
'Yes, I've sometimes been a bit scared, or rather, had moments where I've felt great respect for the mountains. I always listen to my feelings and also to what the mountain says to me when I'm alone.'
Responses translated from the original German.
When was your first trip to Patagonia, and what did you achieve?
The first time I went to Patagonia was in 2000 - I managed to climb Fitz Roy via the Franco-Argentina link-up.
Why does soloing serious routes in winter appeal to you - it's certainly not everyone's cup of tea?
Yes that's true, but I like being alone in winter and the fact that it doesn't attract as many people - that's really interesting and fascinating for me.
Tell us about your great effort on Cerro Torre and the Supercanaleta on Fitz Roy, where you were forced to retreat at 40 metres and a few hundred metres from both summits respectively. How were conditions, and what goes through your mind at the point where you decide to descend?
On Cerro Torre, the problem was the last 40 metres, there was just too much rime ice and snow on the wall, it was simply impossible to climb. I needed to dig a tunnel, but that would've taken far too long, so I decided to turn back - even if the summit was within my reach.
On Fitz Roy, the problem was the conditions, there was very little ice on the route, but a lot of snow, which made the climbing very tedious and even dangerous. I also didn't feel good about it and was very tired after a busy ten hours, having been up to my belly in the snow at times! Better next year, I thought - the mountains won't run away.
Will you be back to complete a solo of these summits?
Yes certainly, next year I'll fly back to Patagonia and will try to realise my dream once again and finally stand on the summits, alone in winter.
You made a fantastic solo ascent of Cerro Pollone. Why did you choose the route you took, and tell us a bit about the difficult top-out onto the summit?
After I tried Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy, I realised that the problems I had on both were due to the snow and I thought I would have a go at Cerro Pollone. The climbing is not as difficult technically, only the last five metres to the summit are technically tricky. Some people stop and turn back just below the summit, but I wanted to attempt the last few metres of difficult climbing. I followed the line of the Cara Sur, with a variation on the start, further to the right. I reached the very top - I stood up on the summit.
For me it makes a big difference whether you are at the very top or four metres below, especially if the crux of the route is, as on Pollone, within the last few metres. It was very dangerous to climb the last section, on the last move I attached my ice axe to a sling and threw it onto a little ledge, then I aid climbed and mantled onto the summit, anchoring the rope to a cam. It was a scary moment and a risk that I took upon myself to stand up there. Pollone is a really special mountain, unique, but if you stand at the top - at the very top - then you know that that's where the summit really is.
How would you describe the winter season in Patagonia this year - there seem to have been multiple important ascents, Marc-Andre's solo of Torre Egger (and now his repeat and first free ascent of Titanic ) and your ascents in particular. Were conditions friendlier than in past winters?
The weather was much better than last year this winter, the conditions were definitely much better for rock routes such as the Torre Egger than for ice routes. This year there was not a lot of ice, but a lot of snow in the gullies. This is different every year, in the end you just have to get a bit lucky to have good conditions on both the rock and the ice.
How do you deal with risk in the mountains? Do you experience moments of fear?
Yes, I've sometimes been a bit scared, or rather, had moments where I've felt great respect for the mountains. I always listen to my feelings and also to what the mountain says to me when I'm alone; you become very sensitive and can feel what is right and what is not, or at least I can. A little fear isn't bad, the important thing is that you can deal with it and not be paralysed by it.
What do you enjoy about climbing in Patagonia - what makes it special?
You're truly alone in the mountains, there are almost no climbers around compared to summer. For me, this makes winter mountaineering in Patagonia even more beautiful.
Do you see much fixed gear on routes in Patagonia? What is your opinion on bolts in these mountains?
There are, of course, some old routes where many old, fixed ropes are still hanging, but there are always a lot being cut off, so the mountains are getting cleaner, I hope.
It was simply a different time: these days, you try to climb as fast as possible and in alpine style. I am not totally against bolts if they have a purpose - for example at a belay - then I think that's fine. I think every mountaineer feels a sense of relief when they reach a good belay, especially when abseiling.
You have made first ascents in the Himalayas. How does Patagonia help to prepare you for mountaineering in the greater ranges?
I climbed Shogu La, Bi-Tsi and a nameless mountain in Tibet. The climbing in Patagonia, but also in the Alps, is certainly good preparation for high mountains, but ultimately they are two different disciplines - the altitude is the main issue.
What is your next objective (in Patagonia or elsewhere?)
Next year I'm going back to Patagonia for Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy, then after that I have a few solo projects in the Alps.
Visit Markus' website.