As I dosed my consciousness lay on standby. Not completely switched off. Still processing concepts that would present themselves but without context or logic. Unexplained visions linked by a narrative that didn’t follow normal rules. But the narrative was at least a pleasant one. Then came a concept into the story that I wasn’t expecting, something I didn’t want, a bad turn in the otherwise pleasant tale. It was familiar, but I couldn’t narrow down what it was. As it grew and grew until it was all that my mind could envisage. It was a bad thing. And it was familiar, but still I couldn’t identify it. Then it came to me. Cold! I was cold! It was so obvious now and the situation was all too familiar. But then came a less familiar sensation. Strange words sung in tune.
“I’ve just come down
From the Isle of Skye
I’m not very big and I’m awful shy
And the lassies shout when I go by
Donald, where’s your troosers “
I snapped awake and suddenly became aware of reality and my situation. Uisdean’s singing became familiar. I’ve only known Uisdean just over a year, but one thing I’ve learned from climbing with him is that when the going gets tough Donald gets going…
We were sat under a boulder somewhere below the west face of Saint Exupery, we were both soaked, it was dark and it was pissing with rain. The previous day had been straight up, type one fun, world class climbing. Pitch after pitch of impeccable granite that you wouldn’t think could exist. But it does. As we descended the weather had got steadily worse and now it was dark, in the driving rain and heavy clag we couldn’t find our way down the cliff bands that separated us from our tent at Niponino and we had decided to indulge ourselves in an unplanned bivi using one of the lightest bivi systems known to man, which I’ve been developing over the past few years: the system is weight 0 grams and provides sleep for upto 50 percent of the time. It had 2 phases:
Phase 1: Sit up and rub your legs as vigorously as you possibly can. This increases blood flow to your legs and generates heat by fiction and by the exothermic chemical reaction that will occur in your muscles.
Phase 2: Once you reach a state of relative warmth you should feel yourself drift into a state of blissful unconsciousness. This will last until your body cools down again and you wake up. Now repeat phase 1.
I have found this system to work particularly well in closed air environments such as small snow holes where the lack of oxygen available during phase 1 means the asphyxiation effect takes you more quickly into the blissful unconsciousness of phase 2.
Eventually dawn came and it became annoyingly obvious where we had to go. We had been in the right place but had dismissed an easy scramble as t being the right way due to it looking like it lead into a terminal void.
About an hour later we squelched our way into Niponino.
“Oh excellent,” Uisdean said with delight.
“A trickle of water has just made it down my arse crack”
My crotch area had already been penetrated by unwanted fluids. For some reason there’s something particularly unpleasant about having a wet groin. Every part of your body can be wet but as long as you’ve got a dry groin it’s easy to happy. But if not then life can feel generally a bit shit.
“It’s only discomfort.” I kept saying to remind myself and Uisdean that unpleasantness is to be embraced and is nothing to worry about.
The 6 hour walk back to town felt longer than normal. Eventually the sun came out and dried our now rather smelly bodies producing a toxic steam that cleared the tourists out of the way on the final trails that lead into El Chalten.
Patagonia is a hard place to climb but it’s an easy place to be. Life in El Chalten is simple: go bouldering, go running, eat empanyadas, look at weather forecast, repeat. Days merge into each other and time seems to disappear inan abyss of indulgence. One thing I do find hard about being in Chalten however, is the constant need to be both ready to climb the hardest route of your life and also ready to spend days chilling out in the El Chalten bubble of relative inactivity at the same time. Constantly changing weather forecasts can mess with the mind as you get all psyched up but then have to change your plans last minute. It a challege that is present in any mountain climbing but it seems to be more apparent in Patagonia. It’s an interesting mental challenge where you have to maintain a very strong desire to succeed whist at the same time being completely content in failure.
After climbing Saint Exupery we headed into the mountains several times in marginal windows to either get smashed by the weather or shut down by shit conditions or in one instance people climbing above us. Although I find any outing in the mountains to be fulfilling it’s hard not to feel a little frustrated when you hardly get off the ground.
With our time in Chalten nearing it’s end a glimmer of hope appeared on the forecast. What looked like a proper window that might enable us to climb something proper. As the predicted window drew nearer Rolo would call round and enthusiastically point at weather maps and charts that I didn’t fully understand but the overriding message was that we needed to “think ambitiously” and “go big.”
Wild ideas were flung around: a new line on Fitz Roy, Fitz and Torre in the same week! But as the time drew nearer the meteorologists rained in our ambition with ever more pesimistic forecast. So in the end we decided to go for the Ragni. Not as glorious as our oringal plans but a life long dream for myself and Uisdean none the less.
On the Wednesday we left El Chalten armed with a weeks worth of food so we would have the opportunity to wait out bad weather without returning to town. Our plan was to walk into the Nunatak (a camping spot an hour beyond Niponino) and then hopefully make it over the Col Standhardt as soon as the weather would allow to put us in a striking positions to climb the Ragni. We set up camp in a seemingly good spot in a sheltered gutter like feature that kept us out of the wind. Our American friends Austin and Andy joined us a few hours later.
As we dosed off to sleep for the night rain started to fall but I didn’t think much of it. I woke up after a few hours to the sound of much heavier rain. It felt a bit damp, so I immediately got up to check whether our tent was following our friend Mr Livingstones moto. On inspection it was hard to tell whether the tent was either loving the fight or enjoying the party, but it certainly was not preserving integrity. A large puddle had formed by my feet. I opened the tent door to discover that our sheltered trench had turned into a sheltered water trough. I woke up Uisdean and we immediately set to work bailing out water and constructing dams in the driving rain.
The next day we got a brief spell of sunshine in which to dry our kit. Austin and Andy got a forecast using their sat phone. It was supposed to clear the following day (Friday) but with some lingering clouds. So we spent the rest chilling out and working on Anglo-American relations. We awoke the next morning to light rain and heavy clag. Saturday was supposed to be the “totally splitter/Chris Bonnington/Bonners conners” day so it made sense that we had to try and get over the col today to have a chance at summiting Cerro Torre the next day. By 2 pm the rain had stopped but there was still a decent layer of heavy clag, but we made the decision to set off anyway as we needed to get over the col before Saturday.
About an hour after setting off we entered a zone of crevasses with pretty much zero visibility. Austin had been up to the col earlier in the season so we followed his nose. We knew we had to go up, and in order to do so we kept getting drawn to the left into ever more messy glacial terrain. I took the role as crevasse canary and lead us across a multitude of bridges across gaping slots. With basically no visibility we couldn’t see where we were going or what was above us and our decision to keep ploughing on into the unknown is not one I’m particularly proud of. Eventually after many hours of wandering we reached an area of debris in a steep gully that we thought might be the gully leading to col Standhardt but having been there before it didn’t seem right. Having logically worked through the possibilities of where we might be, the only other place that seemed to fit was the gully next to Medialuna, but that was miles off route and Austin said that he would eat his own socks if we where there. So we continued upwards, but it soon became apparent that we were heading into some quite dangerous territory with big seracs looming above. We made a hasty retreat. Back at our camp at the Nunatak just before dark we studied some photos further and confirmed that we were in fact next to Medialuna. Probably around a mile off route. I am still waiting for Austin to eat his own socks as promised.
Saturday was full on Chris Bonnington as promised. Frustratingly we basked in the sun and stared up at a windless Cerro Torre. Austin and Andy got a new forecast, which didn;t sound great so we packed up and headed off back to town. But around half an hour after leaving we bummed into Aussie/Kiwi friends Kim, Dan and Gary. They had a more optimistic forecast and were heading in to climb over the col the next day.
We had no choice. Even if the chance of them climbing the Ragni was very slim. If they climbed it and we didn’t the FOMO would be unbearable. We had to go with them.
So at 2am the next morning in good weather we set off to the col Standard. We reached the col at dawn. I’d been there twice before when attempting and climbing Exocet. It’s a wild place. The westerly wind rips through the narrow gap that separates the Torre Valley to the east and the vast South Patagonian ice field to the west. A barren desolate ice wilderness that stretches for hundreds of miles. As we made the abseils down the west side I felt the sense of commitment that I’ve grown to know and love. It’s only three pitches of climbing to get back up to the col Standhardt after you have done the abseils, but it always feels much more out “there” as soon as you put a mountain between you and civilisation.
We headed down several thousand feet further into the Cirque of the Alters. The Torres rose above us, huge bastions of granite and ice. Then calf burning slopes and a few pitches of mixed climbing lead us back up towards the col of Hope. Where just below the col we found the perfect bivi site in a bergshurnd and after a quick assessment of structural stability we set up our tents.
The forecast was for worsening weather that afternoon and then better the next day. So we sat in the sunshine melting snow and marvelling at at our surroundings. We went to bed early and I layed awake for hours with nervous excitement, whilst Uisdean snored away in the same single sleeping bag that we were sharing. When we woke up at 1 it was windy and snowing so we went back to sleep. When we finally set off at 4 it was still windy and snowing, but we had to try and hope that it would improve. Somewhat of a running theme.
Setting off up Cerro Torre in a storm is far from best practice, but you have to make the best of what you have. Even if what you have is pretty dire. The col of Hope was not very hopeful. Freezing cold wind ripped across it like acritc jet engines. But as we progressed higher it seemed as though luck might have been on our side. The winds eased slightly as we got to the first ice mushroom features that characterise the Ragni route. We ground to a halt as Kim tried to dig his way up the front of the Elmo ( the first proper mushroom pitch). After waiting for an hour I decided to look round the corner just to move around and keep warm, but to my surprise there was a natural tunnel that lead all the way to the top of the Elmo in about 5 minutes. It was like an adventure play ground for ice climbers. From the top of the Elmo the clouds cleared for around ten minutes giving us a brief view across the ice cap. But this was brief and a few pitches later things had taken a turn for the worse.
It’s always hard to make the decision to turn around on a route where you will be descending the same way. The higher you climb the further you are from safety and its always safest to turn around. No matter how good the weather is. But finding the balance between chance of success and chance of survival is tricky to judge and there are no definitive answers. If you always went for the safest option then you’d never leave the ground, how much you want to risk is a very personal choice and it can never be black and white. Our margin for error was getting thinner and thinner the higher we got. That topped with the fact that we knew our chances of actually summiting were next to none made this particular decision to turn around not too difficult to make.
Once we started descending it all seemed a lot less stressful. I find this is my favourite state to be in, in the mountains. When necessity is the only driving force needed. Everything is so simple, there are no decisions to make apart from how best to get home. Although getting home might itself hold some uncertainty and hardship for me it’s a very liberating place to be.
We worked well as a team of 5 leap frogging the ropes on the abseils and Dan did an excellent job drilling the V-theads in front. The ropes often whipped scarily sideways and I feel pleased that we have two sets just in case. We kept descending past our bivi and reached the glacier as it got dark. The snow had fallen as slush down low and going back up the slopes to the col Standhardt seemed like it would both be brutally strenuous and quite dangerous. So we set off in to the night north up the ice cap on the 40km hike out via the Glacier Marconi.
Having been awake for over 24 hours my mind struggled to keep focused on putting one foot in front of the other, it was caught up in a necessary struggle to get home and to survive. And any other worries were pushed back and shown to be as insignificant as they really are. It didn’t even bother me that we hadn’t reached the summit. Summits only serves to further massage our already too inflated egos I decided. And I like having my ego smashed. All we were now were five tired, hungry beings grinding against the necessity of survival. I looked up and out across the ice cap and marvelled at how beautiful it was and how free and happy I felt despite the deep fatigue and hunger I felt. Then Scotch singing interrupted my spiritual moment, it echoed in the wind across the ice cap.
“The lassies love me every one
But they must catch me if they can
You canna put the breeks on a highland man,
saying, “Donald, where’s your troosers?”
After Note: A couple of weeks later after myself and Uisdean had returned home Kim and Dan went back and summited Cerro Torre. The only ascent of the season….. I have no FOMO.