January 15th-16th 2012 — Matt is up and moving at 0230, a half an hour before the alarm. In a show of bad expedition behavior, I wait for alarm. We move slowly across the rock glacier, feeling strong and ready for the climb. Headlamps dot the moraines and glaciers of Valle del Torre. Since midnight it has been still. The stars are twinkling and the clouds of yesterday evaporated into the night. The palpable energy of Niponimo for the last two days is about to come to a head.
The approach is simpler. The fourth time is rote memorization up the gully, though going up the moraine in the dark is a different story. We pass another party, they are headed up to do a route on St Exupery as well. Headlamps dot the base of Chiaro de Luna. We aren’t the first but we will be the only ones on our route today.
The rising sun paints her colors onto the Cerro Torre group as we ascend the snow filled gully. We front point up hard snow and ice, exiting onto the loose scree filled slabs. Soon we are wandering up a steepening chimney at the base. Matt racks up and takes the fist lead. He wants out, to exit left, but to no avail. He belays me up and I join him on a snow ledge deep within the initial chimney of the Kearney-Harrington. “What’s in the anchor?” I ask as I grab the remaining gear from him and re-rack.
“Well, I got a TCU down here and have clipped this tat and nut up here” he responds, gesturing to a block and fixed nut. I hand Matt the pack and I look up scoping out the ice filled chimney, off-widths and teetering loose blocks. “We are in the wrong fucking place” Matt admonishes, “we got to get out of here.”
“Well, I am going to go up and that is what we need to do” I reply as I eye the best line, which of course, is covered in ice. I cast off up the back of the wide chimney leaving Matt standing on a small snow covered ledge. Delicate stemming and pulling propels me up and over some loose blocks and flakes, finding a few solid cracks into which I eagerly place protection. I move left, then up, then back right, inching upward.
“Man we got to get out of here” Matt yells up from below.
“I’m working on it” I reply looking down and seeing him shivering at the cold, snowy stance. Ice and wet rock slow my upward progress and I liberally alpine free through the hardest sections. I take tension and swing right. No surete. I move back left and scour my pitifully little remaining gear for options. I move up to a thin hands crack, stemming around the verglass and find a suitable belay. Too slow, I chastise myself. I equalize the anchor and clip in. “Belay off Matt” I yell down and start pulling up the rope.
We continue up. Several pitches of loose rock, choss wrangling and delicate climbing later, I once again find myself attentively stemming around wet rock and jamming ice and snow filled cracks. My fingers dig in to the snow, excavating enough to find a little purchase. I torque my fingers in, stem wide and then repeat the process with the other hand. I slide a TCU in below and work around it, toe jamming the snowy crack. I move left, out of the verglassed corner, happy to have been dealt this beautiful lead. The rock is the best on the route so far. I bypass a clean roof and climb a sunny and steep crack filled slab to an old anchor. “Belay off” I yell down, excited to have led the best pitch thus far. “Nice work” I offer down as Matt comes in to view.
“Yeah, nice job on those ice filled cracks.” He clips the pack into the anchor and I hand him the remainder of the rack.
I look at my watch. “Well, it is two-thirty.” I have just climbed the tenth pitch of the day.
“Let’s keep going” he responds without hesitation.
I look around at the Patagonian rarity of a clear blue sky and nod my head. We both turn and look up at the chimney above that will take us to the shoulder and the east face. “Must be my pitch” Matt jokes, referencing his luck for getting the chimney pitches.
“Are you at the top?” Matt yells up six pitches later after hearing my belay off command.
“Fuck no” I respond. “There is just a shit ton of loose rock up here.” I am tucked into a small alcove among towering blocks and loose sloping scree.
Nearby a party is topping out on Chiaro de Luna and Diego waves a hello as he builds an anchor to bring up his partners. “Maybe we rap together?” he asks in broken english.
“Maybe” I reply hesitantly.
Matt is soon at the belay and swings the lead, firmly alpine freeing up a rubble filled fist crack. Minutes pass and the rope pays out. “How much rope?” is heard from above.
“Halfway Matt” I yell using my mountain voice. The rope is pulled out without hesitation and before I know it I am on belay and wandering up cracks, scree filled slabs and face toward the pointy summit. We share high fives and a tiny granola bar. The evening light colors the horizon hues of pink, orange and purple as we take a summit photo and start the rappels.
We join forces with Diego, Gee and Alesandro, an Italian and two Brazilians. We exchange ropes and I rappel last off the shoulder, stretching the two ropes almost fifty meters to a small stance with two pitons. I look down from my precarious perch, seeing the others almost sixty meters below me. I clip into the anchor and start pulling the ropes. “Rope” I yell loudly as the yellow cord falls from above. “Fuck, fuck, cogerme” I curse as I attempt to free the rope from an unknown culprit almost twenty-five meters above. I exchange cursory options with Matt, who is sixty meters below. “Can you come up here with the rack so I can lead the pitch and get the rope unstuck?”
“Cut it man. We need to keep going” he responds.
Eight hours, three languages, countless plans lost in translation, nine rappels and two new friends later, we touch down at the base of the Kearney-Harrington. Rock fall, funky anchors and language difficulties only add to the experience. The threesome disappear down the slabby gully. Matt and I sit down and eat the remaining ProBar, completely unaware of the tragedy unfolding elsewhere on the spire.
“Well,” Matt looks at me, “I guess we fought the good fight.”
I take a swig of the remaining Tang from his water bottle. “Yep, I reckon so.”