2014, El Chalten

De l’S: Take Two

Bleep, bleep, beep, the satellite phone rings its electronic ring. “New SMS Message. Read Now?” it announces.

“Howdy” Rainbow greets two Italian climbers as they descend the loose scree into Niponino’s sandy tent platforms. We chat a bit and exchange beta before they grab their cached gear and head further up the valley.

I turn my attention back to the expensive piece of technology in my hand and its question. Several minutes earlier Matt’s unexpected text had told us that tomorrow was to be the best day. Now, after pressing the “yes” option on the satellite phone, Anna’s texted data sets confirmed what Matt had suggested.

Rainbow waiting out the weather in the I-Tent

The blowing snow that has been driving into the side of our tent for the past twelve hours has abated slightly and the clouds have begun to lift. Large lenticulars swirl to the south over Cerro Solo, giving a grey, ominous look to the sky. The snow dusted peaks of Fitz Roy’s range have been released from the grip the clouds have held them with for the past 36 hours and they now once again stand guard over the Valle Torre’s east side. With the bright and warm sun comes the motivation to do something, so we sit and discuss options: hiking out, cacheing at Rio Blanco, climbing El Mocho, De l’S or something. With our ice screws cached on the other side of the range, rock shoes in our packs, and snow and ice dusting everything, we come to the realization that we have brought ballet slippers to a boxing match. We did not quite have the right tools for the jobs at hand. The cold temps and snow covered cliffs of El Mocho help us rule out ascents of routes on its east ridge, so instead we turn our sights eastward and debate the approach to climb ratio of De l’S’ Austríaca ridge. The predicted short window of low winds and clear weather and our desire to do something, even in colder temperatures, help us settle on the Austríaca as an objective. We hammer out a leave time and set about doing some tasks. We are excited to be out in the momentary calm and clearing of the afternoon sucker hole after eighteen hours crammed into a two person tent. Today was supposed to have been the Good Day, but like the irreverent house guest it is, it just showed up when it wanted and for as long as it wanted.

***

A week earlier the coming weather “window” was a royal wolf floating gently down a clear mountain stream. We were a cautious yet hungry golden trout that had forsaken its fair share of sketchy looking meals. We watched it drift towards us, every six hours moving just a little closer down the meteorogram. We circled and watched and looked at it from different angles. We consulted the maps. We poked, pondered and prodded. It looks good and it looks safe we concluded. But we needed a plan before we bit at the tasty morsel that is good weather in Patagonia. It did not look like a Poincenot window, not juicy and calm enough. It was a cold window, but we could hack rock climbing in the cold, could we not? So with a final look Tuesday morning, we bit. We chomped down hard on the royal wolf with a heavily laden stroll up to the Torre Valley. Its hook set and we began being reeled up and into the blowing snow and winds of that deep and beautiful enclosure. We set up camp in the driving snow and subfreezing temperature and watched snow accumulate on our objective. Then we laughed with irony as we read the incoming 18z forecast from Anna: more precipitation tomorrow. We fell, hook, line and sinker for this window.

***
The afternoon sucker hole quickly shut down as Anne, Rainbow and I finished boiling water and eating our mashed potato dinners. The sporadic stream of new comers onto the morainal campground, combined with the updated forecast and conversations with friends Allen, Stefan, Mikey and Josh all help keep our spirits up and give us hope for tomorrow though. Except most were headed toward ice objectives. “I’ve froze my fingers off enough up here” Mikey said when we asked if he was climbing rock or ice. We cram into our sardine can and fall asleep to the soft sound of snow settling and sliding down the sides of our little, yellow tent.

As usual the beep of the watches serve not to wake me up, but as an excuse to talk. “Oh, fuck” I mutter my usual greeting of the dawn. The light snow fall has yet to cease and one to two inches coat the ground outside. The wind however has died. I unzip the door, reach out and grab the Jetboil. I load it with water, turn on the gas and depress the igniter switch once, then twice, then three times, all in quick succession. Finally it lights. I position our food bag as a wind-block and pull back inside the tent. Headlamps have come on and we debate the merits of going. “It is doing just what the forecast predicted” I say, ” so it should stop soon.” There is more than a hint of doubt in my voice. Eventually with the ceasing of the snow, we toughen up and the decision is made to go. The morning light paints beautiful colors across Mochito, the small rock face just above camp. We batten down the hatches, shoulder packs and march out of camp en route to Col de Austríacas and its namesake route on De l’S.

Anne and Rainbow ascending toward the Col de Austríacas

Travel up the steep moraine and ensuing rock filled gully is slow with the new snow coating the boulders and covering the icy terrain. We slowly inch our way upward. Behind us Cerro Torre and her cohorts are still hidden in a swirl of clouds though blue sky is making itself known over the Fitz Roy group above us. Before long the Torre group is bathed in sunlight and we, on the western flank of the Fitz Massif, are left shivering in the morning cold. The beauty and the calm propel us upward though, as does the thought of coming sun. We crest a rise and face a biting localized wind as we don crampons and grab ice axes to begin traversing into the couloir for the ascent to the col. A few route finding choices later have Rainbow leading snow covered slabs and corners. Anne and I stand at the belays and shiver. Sun is always a game changer and today was no different; today it changed our outlooks for the better. Of course that the arrival of the sun also indicates the lateness of the hour is not lost on us as we build an anchor and rappel back into our ascent gully. Our upward foray a bit to far to the left has cost us a considerable amount of time. We pause for some rest and nourishment and debate the pros and cons of further ascent. Given the lateness of the hour and the previously encountered conditions that dictated slow progress, common sense wins out; we point our noses downhill and begin our descent.

With the nicest January day to date gracing us with its presence, descent with no summit was a bitter pill to swallow. We try to console ourselves with logic and common sense, but in the end it is a wasted opportunity, one we could have done better on. Back in camp we eat food, check the weather and decide to make tracks out of the valley in order to cache some gear for a still as to be determined future date with Poincenot.