“Why not Australia and Arapallies or just hang out in New Zealand with a fine lady?” Margo asked me as we stood at the base of another beautiful route in Red Rock’s Black Velvet Canyon.
I had told her the previous day of my slightly absurd plan to try to work in New Zealand in the fall, travel to Patagonia for January and then back to New Zealand for a course in February. It would be lots of travel, lots of logistics and a huge carbon footprint. Now she was questioning my motives. The question she asked touched at the very reason that we/I was standing in a cold, windy and shady canyon at the base of a very long wall in an otherwise sunny, rock climb riddled desert.
Why do I go? If you have to ask, you haven’t been. I didn’t say that to her, but that was my first thought. Go, see for yourself, and you will ask no more questions save one, which is “how can I manage to come back next year?”
I have had two mostly successful seasons in Patagonia. Here and there I have touched on success and what that means in the mountains. Maybe I am being lulled into a sense of complacency, Maybe the giant weather windows that have graced my time down here have tricked me into thinking that endless days of good weather are the norm, sort of like falling in love with a dry drunk. You think that things are always going to be a certain way but under the surface there is change and danger lurking.
Folks say Patagonia was soft last year. Nope not true. The climbing didn’t change. Was the weather soft? Well, the weather was better. Patagonia can’t be soft. If one climbs in El Chalten, one will use the weather forecasting devices at hand to up their chances of success. So while the weather was better and the forecasting improved, the climbing was still as difficult. It was just easier to get after bigger objectives knowing that you had a break in the weather. And yeah the breaks in the weather were more frequent last year. I see the trend growing. Billy Joel’s line “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems” would aptly apply to El Chalten.
I come back to Patagonia to climb and to challenge myself. For weeks in December, January and February there is simply no place better for an alpine climber to ply the trade. While a lot has changed over the past decade, changes that indeed make a climber’s life easier, it is still the crucible. The granite spires still thrust high into that cloud streaked sky and the rain and wind still lash out for weeks on end. Climbing in El Chalten’s massifs still require skill, cunning, speed, and a good measure of the good fight. The mountains are still real. Rescue is still a long way off.
I come to Chalten because the living is easy. Camping, asados, empanadas, and medialunas. Meat and red wine. The company is nice. The days are filled with the waiting and then the preparation and then the action. Then it is the same thing over again. When the weather is not conducive to big routes on the massifs, bouldering and sport climbing can be enjoyed a short walk from town. Hostels, restaurants and campgrounds cater to my needs. It is not as cheap as it once was, but it still ain’t too bad.
I go because one of the reasons I love climbing is because all climbers can choose to play on the same field. I could never have stepped onto Fenway Park’s diamond with the likes of Roger Clemens or Jim Rice. But I can step up to the Gorretta Pillar with beta from Colin, Kate, or Madeline. We sit out the same storms and feel the same uneasiness as rescues happen and storms swirl. The weather spares no one. I might not be playing at the same level as the professional climbers that dot the range’s granite and ice, but we are on the same field playing in the same conditions. In no way am I brash enough to think that I will ever leave my mark on this vast, endless landscape as others have, but I know without a doubt that this vast and endless landscape has left its mark on me.
I go because I have FOMO. I go because I can’t not go. I go because what if El Chalten has the biggest weather window ever? How could I miss that? What else would I do? People try to make the case for sport climbing in Thailand or cragging at the Grampians. For me that is whimping out, not challenging myself. Sure maybe I could project a five-eleven or something, but what truly fills my soul and my heart is seeing those granite spires rising against a clear blue sky, stepping out of the El Calafate airport and feeling the harsh Patagonia wind scrub the glaze from my travel weary eyes, and later looking out into a growing Patagonian dusk and watching the shadows of Fitz Roy and her cohorts fall across the barren stretches of steppe. It is a thousand moments like these, moments of terror, beauty, peace, camaraderie, kindness and friendship that drive me south. And I do not want to miss them.
I go because as I write these words a feeling grows in my gut and my palms begin to sweat. I am inexplicably drawn to this place and the base level physical reactions I feel inside at the mention or thought of this place tells me it is real.
In true circular fashion I go because it drives everything I do. It is why I sit in the Washington County library outside of Zion National Park waiting out the rain. No, it is not for the bouldering or Cynthia’s Handjob, though they are both fun. It is for the same reason I don’t mind getting up early, going to bed late and walking lots of miles through desert canyons, unstable moraines or endless boulderfields. It is why Matt and I spend a perfectly good Sunday afternoon scraping our way up lichen covered granite and grass filled cracks of random cliffs of the Wind River Range. It is because it feeds the rat. It is because everyday that I am not there is a training day for Poincenot, Standahardt, or Cerro Pollone. It is why I spend months working in the Southern Alps, trying to climb but mostly just waiting for weather. It just, in some strange fashion, makes sense. The alpine, plain and simple, feeds my soul.
I go for the adventure. Most of my Patagonian escapades have played out smoothly. El Chalten is no longer the proving grounds it once was, but to me it is still adventurous. Satellite phones have taken a lot of the distance out, but do not eliminate the risk. Weather reports and guidebooks have removed the mountains from the arena of the elite, but for me, your average joe, adventure is still found. I feel accomplished when I climb in these mountains. They challenge me.
I go because there is no risk involved in going from bolt to bolt on another sport route in Sinks Canyon. Yeah, maybe I will fail, maybe I won’t be as strong as I think I am, but that is only a risk to my ego. In climbing it is the measure of uncertainty that drives me onward. Risk is inherent in the mountains. Objective hazards are everywhere. A day in the hills above El Chalten leaves me feeling alive, competent and invigorated. Yeah, sport climbing makes me a physically stronger individual and often times climbing in the hinter lands of South America makes me a physically weaker individual, but I have never felt better than after staggering into base camp after a day or three of climbing and/or getting bouted in Patagonia. All the uncontrollable variables that inhabit the equation of climbing in the alpine make me mentally stronger. In sport climbs there are few if any uncontrolled variables. The climbing is purely physical. It is laid out in a paint by number pattern and there is nothing wrong with that. It is just not what I want when I could be in Patagonia and nothing makes sport climbing more appealing to me than a dose of the good fight in the mountains of Patagonia. It is a cycle and they feed off one another.
I go because of the youthful energy and exuberance of people like Nico and Roberto. They are smart and strong. They train. They boulder. They are excited by any climbing. I sure as hell can’t keep up, but they inspire me in their drive and attitude.
I go because, with no shame, I love it. Love to me more than physical affection. Between people love is found in a moment of eye contact, a shared meal, words of comfort, or a brush of the hand. Love is found in an intimacy that is developed through familiarity, through knowing another’s thoughts and through feeling safe. Honing an awareness of these micro-moments of love between people helps fill in the holes in a relationship. The same is true with mountains and so with Patagonia. I love it. The brush of her wind on my face. The patter of her rain on my tent. The deep trust between partners. The feel of her granite beneath my fingers and the crunch of her ice under my crampons. And perversely so, the feel of her lashing wind and rain pulling my ropes out from under me, forcing me sideways instead of down. As long as kindness and appreciation exist, love is possible even with suffering. Somehow I love the gut churning fear I feel when she sends me her invitation, the subtle one of that red line rising above 1020 HPA for a couple days. I don’t want to fail but I love the way she pushes me out the door. I love everything about Patagonia. Waiting, carrying heavy loads, the people, the rock, the challenge, the medialunas, the termidors, the ice filled cracks and even the alpine dread. I love the hunger and the thirst, and the binging and purging that is life in the valley and life in the mountains. I love the waiting. It makes me stronger. It is type two love for sure. I love the hangover of the alpine “binge” and the “having done it” feeling. And though I stress all the way to the top and all the way back down, I love doing it. Once again that love is very fleetingly felt as the hand is inserted into the crack or foot securely placed. I love the feeling of being alive that the mountains give. The feeling of being alive the permeates from challenge, rigorous work, and uncertain outcomes. I love taking advantage of the opportunities she presents. I go because I love it.
I feel an urge, a desire to come down here and throw myself at these mountains. It is The Calling. I can’t explain it, I can’t put a finger on it. It just would not feel right to not do it. Most of all I go because when I am there, climbing in the mountains, I feel alive.