A few high whispies feather the sky over Cerro Torre´s dark, hulking mass as Daren, Matt and I boil water and prep ourselves in the predawn darkness. Yesterday afternoon´s clarity and last night´s stillness hint at the predicted “weather window” of today. We move up the talus, scree, and moraine, making our second attempt on the Kearney-Harrington (IV 5.10) on Saint Exupery. As we ascend the clouds gather and thicken and a fine mist pelts our upturned faces as we optimistically rope up and Daren make the first tentative moves across the immaculate Patagonian granite.
When I ask someone wether or not they have climbed in El Chalten, talk invariably turns to the “weather window.” La ventana de clime. The break in the notoriously unsavory Patagonian weather. At the lower 49th parallel there are not many land masses to distrupt the weather and wind. The wind and weather comes in from thousands of miles of uninteruppted south Pacific Ocean with a mix of cold, Antarctic air. It slams full force into the southern tip of the South American continent, into a region spanning two countries that is known for its vast emptiness, unfavorable weather, and to travellers for its long, daunting bus rides. It is a region that shares an identity that spans two nations, unifying them in a bioregional way. Patagonia. It receives the brunt of the weather as it trends generally eastward across the southern Pacific. It races full force into the Andes, rising and cooling as it crosses the Campo de Hielo Sur (the Southern Icefield) and drops its moisture on to the various ranges that make up the southern Andes.
To climbers Patagonia is infamous for its crappy, inhospitable and frequent, poor, wet, and unclimbable weather. To me part of the appeal is the desire to “get lucky” to be able to move quick enough, anticipate enough, and be prepared enough to take advantage of the the quick breaks in the weather. The appeal is also, as Rolando Garabotti says, “to fight the good fight,” to be patient and to persevere. The rewards (I imagine) are stunning views, splitter cracks, impeccable stone, and memories for a lifetime.
Over the years, much has changed, though I imagine the weather has remained consistently poor. Weather forecasts made available to the public, in particularly by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the interweb have drastically changed climber´s approach to scaling the cliffs of Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy and their compatriots.
Raw weather data, most commonly in the form of meteograms is available on NOAA´s website. Wind speed and direction, mean sea level barometric pressure, dew point, temperature and precipitation show up in chart form, thanks to American law, for any location on earth. Interpretation is up to the user.
Also playing into the change in style and tactics of climbers who tackle objectives in the hills northwest of El Chalten, is the growth of El Chalten itself. Today, with its growth into Argentina´s self proclaimed trekking capitol and all around tourist town, the climber has the internet and NOAA´s meteograms at his or her fingertips. While not always accurate, large high pressure systems, Rolando Garobotti writes on his website, pataclimb.com, are often predictable weeks in advance, while they are still out in the mid pacific. So now climbers have the “luxury” of waiting out inclement weather in town, continually checking for the next “picture window” of weather on the world wide web as opposed to huddling en masse at Paso Superior, Rio Blanco or Niponino.
Two pitches up Daren embarks on his third lead. Clouds swirl around the summits of Inominata and St. Exupery. He moves nimbly across a few loos blocks aiming for a splitter crack higher up. Matt and I silently huddle under hoods and raincoats at a small ledge. The wind brings the rain in sideways as Daren fiddles in a piece. He pauses, takes it out and starts a slow down climb to the belay. “It is shitty up there” he says, maybe unaware that it is shitty where we are as well. We nod in agreement.
I breach the unspoken message. “Well, pass me the nuts, there is a good crack for them over here.” I quickly toss a few stoppers into the crack and start equalizing. It appears our weather window has slammed shut. Luckily our fingers weren’t under the sash.
The following morning, after early AM rain and wind, low on supplies, we and every other climbing party hike out under crystal clear skies and a day so still and calm I could have forgotten I was in Patagonia.