Rather than heading up to Scotland to celebrate the New Year as I traditionally do, this year I flew out to Patagonia for a smash and grab trip to the stunningly beautiful and epically steep Fitzroy Massif!
The trip was my climbing partner Wilki’s idea and sadly is likely to be our last serious adventure together for some time; the reason for this being that Wilki is making exciting plans with his wonderful wife Sarah, and the lovely Lucy and I are moving out to Canada where I’m going to be training as a helicopter pilot. Wilki has been the most incredible climbing partner for me over the past 4 years and I still can’t believe just how productive we’ve been over such a short period of time. Highlights have included climbing the North Face of the Eiger, summiting the Lotus Flower Tower, launching our speedwings down the North Face of the Midi, and countless misadventures which I can now look back on with a great big smile! All this thanks to a storm in Greenland which gave us the opportunity to get to know each other.
Anyway, enough of this soppiness!
When climbers head out to Patagonia they usually stay for 4-6 weeks to give themselves as good a chance as possible of getting a weather window big enough to bag a summit. Due to work commitments Wilki and I had just 7 days in the Fitzroy Massif and we knew that we were taking a huge risk in going out for such a short period of time.
We arrived into the village of El Chalten – from where all climbing missions in the area begin – at 5pm on December 30th after 47 hours of travel and next to no sleep. Crucially though, the sun was shining. A weather window had opened up the previous day and was due to last less than 36 hours longer. There was no time to lose, so despite our fatigue we packed up our rucksacks and within the hour started our hike up towards the Laguna de los Tres where we could set up a camp. After hours of hiking and a quick bite to eat we got into our tent at 11:30pm with our alarms set for 2:00am.
We felt like zombies as we set off after no more than 2 hours of broken sleep. Wilki was convinced that he fell asleep on his feet on more than one occasion during the long trudge up the glacier and it wasn’t until the sun rose giving us a view of the surrounding mountains that the adrenaline kicked in and we began to wake up properly.
Our objective was the Aguja de Poincenot, a beautiful needle of granite which along with its neighbour Cerro Fitzroy is one of the most striking peaks in the Massif. We reached the base of the mountain around 7:30am – well behind schedule due to our slow approach – so we decided to simul-climb as much of the route as possible to make up some time. Simul-climbing is where both climbers ascend simultaneously – roped to one another – and requires huge trust in each other as falling could have dire consequences. I wouldn’t have simul-climbed this route with anyone but Wilki. Halfway up the mountain the ice feature that we were climbing narrowed and steepened into an overhanging chimney which gave us 50 metres of exciting and fun mixed climbing, requiring us to use our ice axes to hook and torque into the rock cracks where no ice was present.
The second half of the mountain was largely free from snow and ice so we cached our big mountain boots and crampons allowing us to climb with much more precision in our rock boots. Once again we simul-climbed; weaving our way up through the headwall of immaculate granite for a few hours until we finally hit the summit ridge with a blast of Patagonian wind in our faces and a spectacular 360° view of the whole mountain range. It was hard to believe that we’d only arrived 20 hours earlier!
We descended the mountain in about 4 hours, abseiling every inch until we reached the bergschrund, and after an irksome trudge down the glacier in very poor snow conditions we finally made it back to the tent at 8pm. Success!
2 days later – to our amazement – the forecast showed another weather window was on the way, so we packed up once again and headed for the mountains. This time our aim was to climb the highest peak in the area, the legendary Cerro Fitzroy.
We could see on the long hike in that the mountain was being rattled by ferocious winds; the clouds that usually cling to the walls were dancing at high-speed, forming and dissolving in a continuous cycle. It didn’t look good, but we still had 12 hours for the winds to calm before we would be climbing those walls. We camped up on the glacier, perched on a ridge with views for miles in every direction; the flat pampas to the east and the mountains to the west, it was utterly beautiful.
We left our camp at 2am under the starriest night sky I have ever seen, and without a trace of a wind. The snow conditions were excellent and we felt fit and well rested. The hike up to the top of the glacier took us just one hour (it took us nearly 3 hours on our previous Poincenot mission) and from there we set off climbing up the steep slopes that form the lower flanks of Cerro Fitzroy. Over the next 4 hours we covered a lot of very varied terrain; a never ending ice slope, a precarious rocky ridge, an exposed hanging ramp, and finally a section of mixed climbing to access a snow patch at the base of the Fitzroy headwall. The wind first made an appearance when we hit the rocky ridge and by the time we reached the base of the headwall it had intensified to the point of being a real concern. Above us loomed 400m of vertical granite, the likes of which would require exposed hands and, ideally, thin rock boots in order to ascend. Every 30 seconds or so a snow devil would engulf us and force us to retreat into our down jackets. This was not ideal!
We set up a belay on a flattish rock ledge where Wilki – having drawn the short straw – changed into his rock boots and racked up for some technical climbing. I watched, pityingly, as he climbed up away from me. I was freezing cold, and I was wrapped up in my down jacket, with thick gloves and big mountain boots; I couldn’t imagine how he must have been feeling. I could see from the way that he was climbing that Wilki was losing the use of his hands; they looked stiff and awkward and the climbing was slow as he frequently had to stop to shelter from snow devils which whipped around him savagely. Over the roar of the wind we shouted to each other and decided it’d be best to lower back down to the snow patch and warm up; from there we could take stock of our situation.
Back down on the snow slope Wilki got warmed up again and we discussed our options. With the sun now properly risen we had a good view of the mountain range and could see lenticular clouds forming in all directions around us; these are an indicator of very strong winds and suggested to us that the conditions weren’t likely to change anytime soon. We rationalised that we could battle on up, but it would be miserable and potentially very dangerous, so really the only sensible option was to retreat back down to safety. 4 years ago – before I met Wilki – I probably would have opted to keep on fighting through the fierce winds to reach the summit; I’d like to think that our decision to back off on this occasion is testament to the fact that we have nothing to prove to anyone, least of all ourselves, and is the product of 4 years of invaluable mountain experience. Or maybe it was just that we really didn’t want to freeze our asses off!
Retreating back down the line we’d just climbed gave us a fantastic opportunity to properly take in the phenomenal geology that surrounded us which we’d only been vaguely aware of on our ascent in the darkness. The Fitzroy mountain range truly is one of the natural wonders of the world and we were both chuffed to bits to have had the opportunity – over just 6 days – to get out not once but twice and experience it in all its glory.
Wilki buddy. It’s been awesome! Here are some happy memories from 4 awesome years packed full of adventure.