“Mind if I rack up and take the first lead” Matt asks.
“Nope, go for it, I’ve probably climbed the most of anyone on this expedition. It’s all yours.” We are at the saddle between the South Avellano Tower and The Tooth, a pyramidal granite spire, and are emptying our large, cumbersome packs that are loaded with gear that is being shuttled out of the Avellano Valley. We just finished the two hour slog up the snow couloir from the valley and the Cave Camp. It was a fun two hours of kicking steps up moderately steep snow with crampons and a huge pack. Now was our chance for a good seven or eight hour break from the task before heading into the scree and boulder choked Ester Sur Valley. We pull the requisite gear from the pack while the wind continually threatens to return any unsecured items back down the couloir to the valley below.
After racking up and loading the daypack, we made our way up to the base of the formation, our goal being to find a new route up it. The black, dry lichen covered granite offers little in the way of hope and jumble after jumble of blocks adds less to our inspiration. Above and right the smooth, blank, south face looks inspiring and our eyes are drawn to the crack systems that make their way up the left side of the face. “We could make our way up to that wide crack” Matt says, gesturing upward..
“Yeah, it looks like a chimney through a roof” I add. “Left the Big Bro in the pack though…” We move on across a scree slope and come to a small stance below a cleaner, more desirable looking, low angle buttress. The speckled granite is, as before, coated with a dry, black lichen reminiscent of miniature shrubs. Matt stops. I look up. A few ramps and corners lead upward toward the ridge crest and the wide chimney above. “We should probably go up here” I declare.
“Yep” Matt agrees. He sits on a rock and starts putting on his climbing shoes. The wind here is no less relentless then before and on the western horizon we see a far off bank of clouds. I flake the rope, put on my shoes and tie in. I put Matt on belay and he winds his way up cracks, ledges and corner systems.
A few pitches up the wind has intensified and the clouds that were so far off on the horizon are oh-so-much closer. The high, white, cirro stratus layer spawns low lying clag that is beginning to coalesce around the summits of not so distant peaks. Now and again, they occlude the sun, whose warmth has made the wind bearable. Communication has dwindled to intuition and familiarity as that howling, unyielding force has rendered the vocal type pointless and ineffective. I will belay Matt to the end of the rope and then begin climbing. It is an article of faith that he will have me on belay.
All around me Andean condors are circling and riding thermals. The massive birds glide by effortlessly, close enough to touch, for me to count their feathers. The bald, blackish heads and greyish-brown plumage belie most of them as having juvenile status, though a handful have the distinctive white neck bands and caruncled forehead or white wing tops more characteristic of adults. I try to count how many are circling around, below and above me, but I loose count at nine. Their presence brings an ominous feel to an already increasingly foreboding atmosphere, as if they are waiting, hoping for our efforts to be extinguished and for us to turn to carrion on which to feed. All around me they loose and gain elevation, riding on the incoming westerlies with nary a flap of their enormous ten foot wingspan.
Somewhere higher Matt moves upward, as silently, the rope pays through my hands. Out of sight now, I had just watched him dance up a steep handcrack. I heard nothing from him, just watched as the ceaseless wind tore at his rope and gear as he moved ever higher, a pea in a pod, a climber doing what he was meant to do.
The rope comes tight on me and I reach up and take out the two cams that secure me to the cliff. I strike off upward, first with fists, then stemming and fingers. The steepness reveals a lichen filled hand crack, a few bulges and some loose stone. I work through the difficulties, with good feet helping ease the passage. Reaching the belay I offer the requisite congratulatory remarks and offer up a high five. “That pitch was worth the choss lower down. Not an instant classic, but worthy. And how about them condors?” I add.
“Yeah, pretty cool… Well Don Jared, we must be doing something right. It seems to be coming together” he continues.
“Yep,” I offer cautiously in response, not wanting to speak too soon, “but lets get to the top first.” We exchange gear and I launch up a quickly diminishing four inch crack, wander to and fro up the ridge crest above, then up some wide, low angle chimneys, ending just below the talon like summit block. We slap high fives once Matt reaches the summit. It is our sixth complete route in Patagonia and our first new route together in the region. It is not what we came for, not the first ascent of the South Avellano Tower, but it is something, an adventure, a consolation prize and sometimes one has to settle.
The summit offers no protection from the still raging wind and the clouds offer little other than protection from the sun and the potential for rain, neither of which are highly desirable at the moment. With nowhere to go but down, Matt grabs the rope, threads the rappel tat and gets on with the business of going home.