“Where do you want me Dave?”
“Wherever you want. It’s your lead.” Dave’s tone is mildly exasperated and slightly frustrated. He has just finished his block of leads and the last one in particular was a run out slab that wound its way upward for about one hundred and twenty feet of vertical gain for about two hundred feet of roped travel. It was sparse in offering protection placements, occasionally wet, frequently licheny, and consistently slabby. I can see he is excited to pass the lead torch on and jug for a bit. “I am sick of risking my life on five-seven.”
“Sounds good. Any ideas or thoughts?” I ask as I clove hitch myself to the anchor. “And, I’m off” I add, while scanning the rock above for the easiest, safest, and driest means of passage.
“Well there is a crack system over there, but it all looks pretty wet, and mossy” he replies gesturing up and right. “Want the rack?”
“Sure” I say as I look down to my harness and start arranging the gear. I take the sling and organize it to my liking while Dave threads my end of the rope into his belay device.
We, Dave, Ting-Ting, Matt and I, are six pitches up the north face of Chilean Patagonia’s South Avellano Tower, one of Patagonia’s largest unclimbed walls. The sky is blue, the breeze negligible, and the water plentiful. We are well stocked with two days worth of food and bivy gear all jammed into the packs with which Matt and Ting-Ting are currently jugging. Our journey to get here has been one of mud, bushwaking, slippery rocks, rain, snow, boulders, talus and snow filled couloirs. This is day sixteen of the expedition and we are jazzed to have a stable weather forecast. Yesterday, after moving over the saddle from our camp in the trees, Matt, Ting-Ting, and I fixed ropes up the cliff. The climbing could have generally been characterized as grassy, wet, and occasionally loose. Under all that though was excellently featured and frictiony, white granite. A climber’s dream. The pitch I had led the previous day had clocked in at a moderately easy five-eight, maybe eight plus, but the loose rock, slippery moss and grass had demanded my attention like a run out five-ten face. Ting-Ting’s lead had deposited me at the base of a left facing corner that had a couple of moss filled cracks and suspect looking overhanging blocks. After a slow and somewhat scary start of stemming and smearing, I ascended a steep, unprotected, grassy corner. Then it was up and right to a squarecut dihedral and around a small roof. I pressed on higher, the grass dissipating as I moved further upward, and in short order, well to me at least, the watch showed thirty minutes, I heard Matt yelling up that I have twenty feet left. Above, I spied a grassy ledge to which I made my way up and gardened out a place for an anchor. After we all arrived, we fixed our line to the anchor and rapped back to the ground, leaving our ropes attached as means to jump start the climbing in the morning.
Back in camp Dave had dinner waiting for us. It had been a long day filled with hard work and the four of us converged on our bowls like vultures to carrion. Later we talked strategy and equipment then hammered out the details of each. Matt counted the calories we are bringing while Dave weighed, literally, the water options. I helped the process by sport eating dulce de leche and crackers. It was a couple hours before we all turned in, but for me, not before giving the weather a final check and setting the three-thirty alarm.
The watch showed 4:48 as we shoulder our packs in the predawn darkness. At the fixed lines we rigged our systems by headlamp light. Dave launched up first as he was to lead the first block of pitches. I followed second, as I will be his belayer for those leads. The morning sunshine relegated our headlamps to the backpacks by the time we all congrgated on the high ledge, though the stiff breeze and shade combined to keep the puffy jackets useful. I belayed Dave up for a couple pitches, culminating with his slabby, run out pitch.
I draw the long straw and find myself on a decently protected pitch, albeit after a false start and with some wetness and moss. None-the-less my first sixty meters of lead climbing this day has put us on the edge of a large ledge system midway up the almost eight hundred meter face. Eventually we all congregate on the ledge and talk upward progress. Matt and I had scouted right and saw no obvious lines upward. We talk left and I tie in and go out for a look. The energy and psyche seem low even though the day is still young and we have lots of water. My excursion left is halted by a big blank slab. I talk about a pendulum but the commiment level to that is on par with the psych and energy. What about going back right, we have food and water? We are not in a rush, we have time? Or I query what about rappelling down and checking out if we can get to the grassy ledge far to the right? I “know” we can link up crack systems from there, I just know it. Internally I am fighting the panic that we might bail. I can’t stomach this. The sky is blue, we have good weather, we have food, let’s try something, I think, but not loud enough.
Matt rappels down to check out the ledge and crack systems upward from there, but with only a single rope, can’t reach the ledge to the far left. He is a hundred feet down.
Our momentum however has shifted and the descent has begun.