2016, Climbs, El Chalten

Facing Reality on Pilar Goretta

The reality is, once again, I am not good enough. Not strong enough, not smart enough, not tough enough, and even potentially, not dumb enough.

Some things had changed in the two years since I last attempted to climb Fitz Roy via Pilar Goretta and it’s north side. I had more experience, more knowledge and was a better climber, so I thought things would be different this time. I was wrong.

Eight days earlier Jake was on a beach somewhere in Chile and farther north, I was checking Chalten’s weather from Lander, WY. I spied the potential weather window some eight days out and sent an email to Jake. We wouldn’t have much time to daly once we got to town. Jake’s email response was like all our communication: short and to the point.  “You thinking Mate y Porro for this window” he wrote. I felt a twinge in my gut, a primal reaction of my nerves, but there was confidence.

Meeting up in El Chalten, chatting with climbers and securing the necessary provisions took a couple of days but the weather window kept coming. Soon enough we walked into Piedra Negra with gear, food, and drive. Our strategy was different this time. One day to the base and bivy there, then up the route over three days and rappel back to the base. A cold night at Piedra Negra sans sleeping bag though had us retreat back to town and once there, new weather reports and interpretations had us spending the night with empanadas, wine and Quilmes.

Eventually we migrated back to the wind and rain swept  Piedra Negra where we enjoyed a relaxed evening. Our casual 1030am start the next morning had us establishing our advanced base camp/bivy on a pillar top somewhere around the second pitch of the climb by 830pm. Snow had obscured/disguised a lot of the route and potential bivy sites and eventually we just hacked one out of the snow. Good enough.

In the morning, with favorable forecasts from friends in Lander, we left our camp and launched out upward into blue skies and white granite. We were well positioned and well supplied. Twelve hours later though, the wind whipped frothy white clouds around the tops of the Pollone Group and Fitz Roy. It tore at my jacket and bit into my exposed flesh. I shivered and wished for my puffy pants. Sixty meters below Jake rigged up for ascending the fixed line. I dug through my small pack and found a bar to munch on as the sun forced it’s way through the clouds and basked Mermoz’s west face in golden light. The clouds had built since noon and just recently started spitting some form of frozen precipitation at us. Despite the growing clouds we had pushed onward. Now 12 hours later we are a mere six pitches from our previous bivy. Jake arrives at the belay and we talk options. Seventy meters below is a useable ledge. Not great, but one of us can lie down and sleep. We rap down to it, leaving our line fixed. The wind and clouds continue to swirl and coalesce as we establish our camp, but dissipate with the alpenglow on the Hielo Continental Sur granting us a peaceful night.

Morning comes quickly at this latitude and with it comes clear skies and calm weather. It also brings decision making time. Onward and upward versus downward and outward. This seems familiar. We talk about pros and cons, hope, optimism and realism. Eventually we do the math. Six pitches, twelve hours. Two hours per pitch. Nine pitches today to the big ledge means eighteen hours. It seems unrealistic. Maybe we climb faster, maybe the climbing is easier, maybe route finding is not as straightforward, maybe we are more comfortable with our systems and the terrain. In the end though, the math is compelling enough and we face the truth: we are not strong enough, not fast enough, not smart enough and ironically not dumb enough. We take advantage of the beautiful day and rappel into disappointment and introspection.

[Ed. note: As this is written from our losers corner at Piedra Negra, clouds and wind batter the surrounding peaks and a light rain falls on our tent. Today would have been our Fitz summit attempt and/or Gorretta Pillar summit day. Ironically, I feel glad to be here versus in the teeth of a short but fierce gale high on the mountain. Invariably though, it would have made a better story.]