“What are you going to say when you get to the top to let me know you are secure?” I ask Gosia (pronounced Gosha) in the predawn darkness.
Ï´ll yell down off belay¨ she responds.
¨Great, when I hear that I will immediately respond with a ¨thank you¨ to let you know I heard you, then when you are out of the device I will yell up ¨belay off¨¨
Ï like it. That sounds perfect¨ the young South African doctoral student replies.
It is 5 AM and we are standing on front points at the base of the Mermoz´s immense north face. I stomp out a small platform between the snow and the rock. Below us steep snow fields cascade into Valle de Glacier Fitz Roy Norte and then Rio Electrico. Grey shadows and shapes of granite spires pierce the slowly brightening sky, their dark silhouettes slowly becoming more distinct. Above us rise eighteen pitches of alpine rock up what guidebook author Rolando Garobotti calls ¨mediocre climbing.¨ I can only imagine that it will translate into eighteen pitches of mediocre rappelling…
For over twelve years I have been teaching NOLS students how to safely rock climb and travel in mountainous terrain. I have been pursuing the same activities on a personal level even longer. Objective hazards, moving through technical terrain, understanding subjective hazards, and pushing through big days while taking care of others, both students and partners, is something that is second nature to me. Standard on most NOLS courses is a discussion on climbing after NOLS. Students want to know what gear to buy, where to climb, how to learn more and where to find partners. NOLS instructors all have different preferences when it comes to answering those types of questions. Friends versus Camalots, which books to buy, gym climb versus no gym climb… As to finding partners my usual advice is to go to a climbing gym and to sus out partners there or to check out the message board at the local gear shop or university outing club. I tell students that they have the knowledge to safely asses what others are doing and to recognize what is safe and what is not. ¨Realize¨ I tell them, ¨that there are a million ways to skin a cat. You know one or two. Asses a system, if you do not understand, ask, but don´t be a NOLS-it-all.¨ The general idea most instructors pass on is to take it slow. Build trust and confidence in a partner before venturing into the multi-pitch realm. They hold your life in their hands. Mostly though, I tell students to be honest with themselves and their climbing partners about their experience, abilities, fears and apprehensions. ¨Communicate¨ I implore, ¨and don´t embellish your skills or experience.¨
Matt Hartman and I have shared countless pitches over the years from single pitch sport climbs to Patagonian summits and everything in between. We have our systems and experience using them together. We know how each other responds when the shit hits the fan and we know each other´s skill level. Most importantly however we trust each other implicitly. So it was with some uncertainty that I broached to Matt that Gosia had asked to join us on our foray up to Mermoz. We agreed that we still had each other to rely on as well and that why the hell not. It would be fun. As our threesome tromped the well traveled approach to Piedra Negras chit chat flowed easily and we learned more about each other´s lives. I found this a slightly welcome change from Matt and I´s usual silent approaches during which we usually discussed only the basics of ¨want to take a break?¨ or ¨want crackers and dulce de leche?¨or ¨what now?¨ The longer we hike to base camp the more apparent it becomes that Matt is not feeling well. Our fears are confirmed 12 hours later as we gulp hot drinks, pack packs, and scarf our ¨morning¨ feast under the 1 AM moonlight. Ï think I need to stay here¨ Matt says, confirming what we had discussed six hours prior before laying down to rest.
So I click off my headlamp and Gosia and I make our way out of camp and across Glacier Guillamet under the light of the waxing gibbous moon. As we ascend the cracked up glacier, traverse the steep, exposed slabs and finally front point up steep, snow covered slabs, I constantly asses and reassess my comfort levels and try to decide which concerns to voice and which to let go. It is in this manner that I find myself at the base of one of the biggest routes of my life with someone whose last name I do not even know, eschewing much of the advice I give to my students. Well, at least I have seen her rappel down the Franco-Argentina as we were climbing…
We rope up and and start via headlamp, jamming splitter cracks in white stone while stemming over and around many loose rocks. Upward progress is efficient thanks to Gosia´s proficient movement. The weather, rock, and route finding treat us well and by mid-afternoon we are abseiling from the summit ridge and commencing the five hours of rappelling that will take us to the ground.
Later as we reverse our route and descend back towards Glacier Guillamet Gosia thanks me for inviting her along and for climbing. “It was good to climb with and trust you. It is not my style to rope up for such a big objective with someone I just met.”
¨Yeah, me neither¨ I say, thinking back on partners and climbs that I have done, simultaneously realizing that I was pretty lucky to land such a competent partner and knowing full well that won´t always be the case.