2016, Climbs, El Chalten

Dark to Dark to Dark

We woke in the dark then watched the sun come up. We watched the sun go down and come up again. All without sleeping. Then we watched it go down once more, still without sleeping. In between we climbed up, rapped down and walked out.


It was to be a short spell of good weather. Jake had to leave. He wanted to climb Fitz Roy. It was either a perfect storm, a perfect opportunity or a textbook lesson on subjective hazards and decision making.

In deciding what to do, I voiced my doubts and offered alternatives. “Is it better to succeed on a smaller objective than to bail off a bigger one” he asked. I didn’t have an answer. As we trudged the 11 kilometers and 1200 meters of elevation to our first camp at Laguna de Los Tres, Jake even suggested we might just be taking our gear for a walk. Somewhere inside I knew that we would be doing more. I knew it would be nice enough to start. Sometimes that is problematic and sometimes that is all you need.

We trudged and postholed to Paso Superior and then La Silla, the shoulder on the south side of Fitz Roy. The hot sun, slow start and steep terrain combined for a long, energy sapping day. Once at La Silla we used our phone to search out a weather forecast. Anne responded with a comprehensive report and analysis. The best weather was to be after the coming precip, but the next 24 hours looked dry, she texted. More importantly to me, though, the winds were forecasted to be low.

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    Jake high on the final pitches of the Supercanaleta, which is what the Californiana finishes to Fitz Roy’s summit

Twenty four hours later found us high on the west side of Fitz Roy. Below us lay the ten pitches of the Californiana, our chosen route of ascent. In front of us lay another hundred meters of technical climbing on the upper pitches of the Supercanaleta as well as 250 meters of scrambling to the summit. Then we would be at the halfway point. Clouds swirled around us and below us, casting dark shadows on the giant icefields to the west and north. That we were going up and not turning around was inevitable from the start. Much like our time on Mate y Porro we had overestimated our abilities. Guidebook author Rolando Garobotti wrote “competent parties can do this route in a day from Paso Superior or even Laguna De los Tres.” We started higher then either of those places and were still behind schedule. Guess we didn’t fit THAT description. The climbing had been varied and enjoyable with an icy off-width crux that had spit me out into a ten foot, upside down fall. That setback notwithstanding, we had progressed steadily upward, finding cracks, good ledges and fun climbing under amenable skies. Despite the wonderful weather we had the route, and likely the mountain, to our selves. That likelihood was both disconcerting and wonderfully liberating. Others had probably smartly abstained from the small stint of stable, dry weather in favor of the longer, drier spell on the horizon. We had no such luxury. At least Jake did not.

From the summit we took in the sunset and the scattered mixture of clouds that gave it character and beauty. We sipped on Tang drink and took pictures before rappeling into the quickly growing clouds and dusk. Two rappels down had us swinging back and forth at the far end of sixty meters of rope searching for the next anchors. After building one, then finding the right line, the rappel topo showed the way, which of course didn’t stop us from somehow getting off course. The clouds came in thicker and soon the snow began to fall, small shining dots illuminated by the beams from our headlamps. Short, then long rappels kept turning up anchors, none of which looked remotely familiar. I knew the consequences of going too far east: long endless rappels down the mountain’s steep, east face. The terrain too, seemed unfamiliar. I tried to make it correspond with my memory and once or twice it agreed to do so, but I could sense a void, an ominous emptiness below, shrouded in dark, snow and swirling clouds that filled me with a sense of doubt.

Rappelling into the growing squall
Rappelling into the growing squall

None-the-less the downward progress kept turning up anchors. The snow steadily dropped, the wind whipping it into spindrift clouds that snuck through our layers, covered the fixed anchors and coated our packs. One of us would rap, search for, find, reinforce and finally establish the next rappel while the other shivered, swore and wondered what was taking the other so long, knowing full well what was happening sixty meters below. Eventually, after a few long hours of kicking, the darkness bled daylight, but even that transformation granted us nothing more than our ability to turn off our headlamps. We were still two small dots somewhere on an immense face. At least we were going down, but the void below still yawned hauntingly, now shrouded only by snow and clouds.

“Jared, it’s the shadow of Poincenot” Jake yelled somewhere from above as I rappeled slowly and methodically, searching for the next anchor. I looked over my left shoulder, and saw nothing. “No, the other way” he shouted back. I turned the other way and saw the faint outline of a hulking massif.

“What the hell is it doing over there? Where the heck are we? I guess we are not too far east” I yelled back in a quick succession of verbal processing. After five hours of snow squalls, the clearing had begun, but not before the shadow disappeared and clouds won the battle for the next round.

At a rappel station somewhere on the south face of Fitz Roy
At a rappel station somewhere on the south face of Fitz Roy

When the clearing trend grew stronger, a solid view of La Silla prompted a sigh of relief. Below, steep, clean faces spilled out into the abyss of Couloir Poincenot. Sure enough, we were not on the correct rappel line, but some several hundred meters down, at the top of the couloir, was our high camp, pack and a temporary respite from the vertical. Somehow, in the dark and in our ignorance we had migrated onto the south face, our continual finding of anchors indicating we weren’t the first to do so however. With the clearing came the wind and more blowing snow, though the sun added its warming touch, taking just a bit of the edge off.

Thirty hours after leaving our high camp at La Silla we strolled back in, dragging our ropes and a lifetime of memories with us. Another 14 hours, characterized by rappelling a dirty gully, postholing through heavy, wet snow and kilometers of trail pounding had us drinking the requisite Quilmes and feeding the mountain hunger at Chalten’s only 24 hour restaurant, the Rancho Grande.

Would you still rather have eaten empanadas and gone sport climbing? Jake asked on the way out. I think of risk versus reward and non-event feedback and the way we make choices. I think of the windless night and think “what if?”

“I don’t know” I replied in the moment. “If you’re gonna be dumb…” I add.

“You got to be tough” he continues from behind me on the dark trail.

“Luckily we didn’t have to be that tough” I reply.

Thinking back now, 36-48 hours post climb, I recognize that, much like my first time climbing Fitz Roy, I never felt out of my element. I went up, I came down. I took care of myself, did what needed to be done and worked with Jake so he could do the same. It felt automatic. We just kept looking up until we needed to start looking down. The weather and the route provided the appropriate challenges and we met them with grace, vigor and skill if not with strength, speed and efficiency. Yeah, the window was small and the room for error or weather changes was slim, but we walked away with learning and the kind of experiences that make a lifetime. And that is just one thing mountains can give us.